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Flyers Rights Pres.: Trump Plan to Privatize Air Traffic Control Could Increase Fees for Passengers

Web ExclusiveJune 07, 2017
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On Monday, President Donald Trump kicked off “infrastructure week” at the White House by announcing plans to privatize air traffic control. This comes as the Congressional Budget Office analysis says privatizing air traffic control would increase the cost of air travel. “It is very unlikely that it is going to improve air service for the average consumer,” says Paul Hudson, president of Flyers Rights, the largest nonprofit airline passenger rights organization in the United States.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. On Monday, President Donald Trump kicked off “infrastructure week” at the White House by announcing plans to privatize air traffic control.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I’m proposing new principles to Congress for air traffic control reform, making flights quicker, safer and more reliable. Crucially, these reforms are supported by air traffic controllers themselves. … Today, we are taking the first important step to clearing the runway for more jobs, lower prices and much, much, much better transportation. America is the nation that pioneered air travel. And with these reforms, we can once again lead the way far into the future. Our nation will move faster, fly higher and soar proudly toward the next great chapter of American aviation.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as the Congressional Budget Office analysis says privatizing air traffic control would increase the cost of air travel. Longtime consumer advocate Ralph Nader reacted to Trump’s announcement in a statement to Democracy Now!, saying, “Trump’s scheme to corporatize the U.S. Air Traffic Control System would put the commercial airlines in a dominant position over other users of the runways and make the collusive profit motives of an already highly concentrated airline industry a determinant over safety and fairness,” unquote.

During the presidential campaign and since taking office, Donald Trump has promised to rebuild America’s infrastructure. This is Trump speaking in February.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I will be asking Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure of the United States, financed through both public and private capital, creating millions of new jobs. This effort will be guided by two core principles: buy American and hire American.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, the White House indicated the Trump administration plans to advance its infrastructure package via special budget rules that would permit it to pass with a simple majority vote in the Senate. On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Trump will hold an infrastructure meeting with mayors and governors around the country Thursday, while former FBI Director James Comey is testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Russian interference in the 2016 election. During Tuesday’s press conference, a reporter asked Spicer about Democrats’ objections to Trump’s infrastructure proposals.

REPORTER: Let me ask about infrastructure. Chuck Schumer, just a little while ago, called the infrastructure plan “an investment bank infrastructure plan, a Goldman Sachs plan.” He said, “It is a sure loser here in Congress”—his words. Are you guys willing to commit more than the $200 billion—the federal government—to potentially meet Democrats whenever a bill comes forward to try to get that across the finish line?

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: Well, look, I think that the American worker and our infrastructure are the president’s priority. And it’s putting people back to work, establishing—fixing those roads and bridges, that allow our economy to thrive and grow. He’s talked—the president, that is, has talked about the impact of, you know, broken bridges and bad roads—have an impact on the economy and the people—the ability to—people to deliver goods to market. So he’s going to create that public-private partnership that assures that we maximize dollars, that we put people back to work and get—get things done. And you saw that yesterday in the air traffic control proposal that he put forward, where you had union support, you had bipartisan support, because the president’s approach at this is that of a businessman.

AMY GOODMAN: While White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Trump has the business skills required to revitalize the aviation industry, Trump’s own airline venture failed less than three years after it began. In the summer of 1989, Trump launched Trump Shuttle. He was ultimately forced to give up the airline after a series of costly missteps.

Well, for all of this, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Paul Hudson, president of Flyers Rights, the largest nonprofit airline passenger rights organization in the country, operating a hotline for passengers, publishing a weekly newsletter, serving on the FAA’s Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee.

Paul Hudson, welcome to Democracy Now! What is it that President Trump proposed?

PAUL HUDSON: Well, it sounded good. But, unfortunately, I would have to agree with most of the critics. It’s very unlikely that it’s going to improve air service for the average consumer. The idea of taking a public monopoly and making it into a corporate monopoly may, in a weird budget way, look better on paper, but I’m afraid it’s unlikely to work. Furthermore, the main reason for this is to bring in what’s called NextGen or to modernize air traffic control. Well, that’s already about three-quarters done. The last report from the FAA said that they would be finished with it by 2020, and this proposal isn’t supposed to phase in until at least 2020. It appears also that if this were to go forward, it would actually slow the process down. So I really don’t understand it. There are many reasons for air traffic problems and for delays that people experience, but the operation of the air traffic control system is really a very minor one.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, he was really mocked for what he did on that day. I’m looking at a Time magazine article. The headline is “President Trump Just Held a Signing. He Had Nothing to Sign.” And it says, “After announcing his goal to privatize the nation’s Air Traffic Control System, President Donald Trump sat down at a desk on Monday and signed two documents. There was only one problem: He wasn’t actually signing something that would have any tangible impact on what he had just proposed.” Now, explain why it had no teeth. “A White House aide told reporters Trump had signed a 'a decision memo and letter transmitting legislative principles to Congress,' surrounding the privatization of [the] Air Traffic Control [system], which he had just spent the last few minutes advocating for. But in order for [his] goal to come to fruition,” Time magazine writes, “Congress would need to pass legislation implementing it.”

PAUL HUDSON: That’s correct. And the House passed some legislation like this previously, and it died in the Senate. The Senate, on a bipartisan basis, through the Senate Finance Committee, has criticized this proposal. And in the House Ways and Means Committee, it has bipartisan criticism. This is a—the kernel of it, anyway, is a proposal by the airline lobby, and particularly Chairman Shuster, who heads the House Transportation Committee. But it doesn’t have a lot of support outside of the airlines themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain. This—what he wants to do is separate air traffic control from the FAA, from the Federal Aviation Administration. What does this mean?

PAUL HUDSON: Well, it means there would be a corporation, allegedly nonprofit, set up. It would have a board of directors. Initially, all eight of them are to be selected by Secretary Chao. The two big airlines—excuse me, two of the seats would be reserved for the big airlines. The pilots’ union would get a seat. The union for air traffic controllers would get a seat. General aviation, airports each get a seat. And the DOT gets two seats. There is nothing in there for consumers, for passengers, for public interest people at all.

And what we think will probably happen is, as happened in other situations, the fees will go up, and they will be lobbed on the consumer. Right now, it was revealed a few weeks ago at a hearing that much of the modernization is in place on the ground. But the reason it’s not being implemented is because the airlines haven’t invested in the equipment for their planes. And apparently they’re looking to pass that over to the consumer.

AMY GOODMAN: So what about safety? You’re talking about prices would go up. And then, what about safety of the airlines?

PAUL HUDSON: Well, the proposals call for the FAA to continue to be the safety regulator. But separate from that, we’ve seen now the industry is proposing over 500 appeals of existing aviation safety rules. In fact, there’s a meeting tomorrow on it that I’m supposed to attend. And if all these were to go through, or even most of them, it could gut the whole safety regime that has made U.S. aviation the safest in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, Paul Hudson, are they saying that he wants the very airlines that dragged a doctor down the aisle, broke his teeth and his nose, bloodying him as they dragged him down United Airlines’ aisle, they want these companies to run the air traffic control?

PAUL HUDSON: Well, in fairness, the president’s proposal waters down the airline control somewhat, whereas the Shuster proposal gave them an absolute majority. But really, if you’re going to give billions of dollars of air traffic control infrastructure to a private company, be it profit or nonprofit, it has to have—a majority of the members need to be the people that paid for it and the people that use the system, not the people with their fingers in the pie.

AMY GOODMAN: Have other countries tried this, like Canada, Switzerland? And what’s been the result?

PAUL HUDSON: Yes, they have. And the results have been mixed. The British, their proposal involved the government owning about half of it and private investors half of it. It nearly went bankrupt after 9/11. And the Canadian system also needed a bailout at one point. The only thing that we can say that might be somewhat helpful here is you can have perhaps better planning for capital investments. But the Senate Finance Committee, the House Ways and Means Committee and the Appropriations Committee, they could fix that problem in a month if they would settle down and actually do it.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about GPS versus radar?

PAUL HUDSON: Yes. Well, radar, of course, keeps track of airplanes in the sky and then guides them to landings and to takeoffs and prevents, along with some other equipment, midair collisions. GPS is the heart of a new system, and it has some advantages, but it also has some weaknesses. For instance, satellites can be interrupted. There have been tests where these systems are interfering with military. If there would be a hacking, as apparently is occurring in some of the airline computer systems, you could lose track of airplanes that way. So, for at least the time being, you’re going to need a backup of the radar system. And that’s likely to, in the short term, make it more expensive, not less.

AMY GOODMAN: And the question: Would they actually maintain that backup if it was going to cost more? And would that make flying more dangerous?

PAUL HUDSON: Well, with this proposed corporation, there really are no controls. This is an absolute necessity for the country. However, there is no limits on what they can charge. There would be no limits on what the executive compensation could be. There’s nothing in there about workers, at least new workers, being protected, about the training and the qualifications. We’ve seen where in other areas, when the airlines and the industry gets control, they tend to go to the lowest bidder, and they bid down the wages and the qualifications of the people.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about Trump’s own airline and what happened to it. Last year, Democracy Now! visited a popup Trump museum housed on the sixth floor of an old printing cooperative right outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. The museum chronicled Donald Trump’s various business failures throughout the years, including his short-lived airline venture, the Trump Shuttle. One of the mementos in the museum was a plastic card from Trump’s now-defunct airlines. Museum curator Jessica Mackler explained what happened to the Trump Shuttle.

JESSICA MACKLER: Trump Shuttle was an airline that Trump bought and ran for a while, until he was forced into bankruptcy, and it—he kind could have lost it in that period. An interesting anecdote about that is that he tried to use marble in the bathrooms of Trump Shuttle, until he found out that it would be too heavy for the plane to fly.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Hudson, can you fill us in some more?

PAUL HUDSON: Well, Mr. Trump bought this from a bankrupt airline—I believe it was Pan-Am—that had a shuttle running between Boston, New York and D.C. for years. He tried to luxuriate it. It didn’t work out. But also, another reason was there was a recession at the time, and other airlines were putting a lot of pressure on this Trump Shuttle. Another factor with the proposal here on Monday is it has no room for small airlines. And without more competition, we’re going to see, we think, both rising prices, which we’ve already seen, and we’re going to see a continuation of bad service. Our view is that we need both reasonable regulation and more competition. And we proposed a repeal of many of the anti-competition rules and statutes that have held that whole thing down.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, one of President Reagan’s first major acts in office was to break PATCO, the air traffic controllers’ union. Can you paint for us a trajectory from there to where we are today and what kind of effect that ultimately had on safety, not to mention workers’ rights?

PAUL HUDSON: Well, the PATCO union went on strike, and that was illegal at the time. It still is. And President Reagan, instead of negotiating to end the strike or have some other measures done, he fired all the air traffic controllers. And there was a long period of dislocation and recovery from that. The controllers have never really forgiven that, and they apparently feel—we think, wrongly—that they’ll do better under a new corporation. Supposedly, they will keep some of their government benefits. Supposedly, they will not be able to strike. But it’s very unclear what will actually happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Paul Hudson, I want to thank you for being with us and for explaining all of this, president of Flyers Rights, the largest nonprofit airline passenger rights organization in the country, operating a hotline for passengers at 877-FLYERS6, publishing a weekly newsletter and serving on the FAA’s Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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