U.S. won’t rush air traffic control privatization, focus on smooth transition

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A jet departs Washington's Reagan National Airport next to the control tower outside Washington

By Andrea Shalal

PARIS (Reuters) – The United States will not rush the proposed privatization of its air traffic control system to ensure a smooth transition for travelers, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told Reuters on Monday at the Paris Airshow.

Chao, who opened the U.S. Pavillion at the world’s oldest and largest air show, underscored the importance of aerospace in bilateral trade ties between the United States and France and said 387 U.S. companies were exhibiting this year.

In an interview, Chao sought to reassure critics in the U.S. Congress by saying moves to privatize U.S. air traffic control functions would not affect safety, and that the goal was to improve the flying experience for all passengers.

“We want to do this in a deliberative and thoughtful way. Once the U.S. Congress passes this proposal, there is a three-year transition period. If that is not enough, we will of course provide a lengthier time to ensure a smooth transition,” she said.

U.S. President Donald Trump this month outlined a plan to privatize the U.S. air traffic control system to modernize it and lower flying costs, but his proposal drew immediate criticism from Democrats who said it would hand control of a key asset to special interests and big airlines.

Under the proposal, air traffic control would be spun off from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and put under the aegis of an independent, non-profit entity.

This “cooperative” would plough all financial gains back in to improve the air traffic control system to fund further improvements, Chao said.

“The issue is efficiency,” she said, adding the goal was also to ensure user fees for general aviation were not too high.

“The really important thing is that the air traffic control system will be liberated from government constraints, which slows it down so much, in so many ways,” she said.

Chao also noted there would be no physical movement of air traffic control assets, with the changes focused on governance and financial structure. “No one will be detecting any changes when this transition occurs,” she said.

Chao noted that 60 other countries had already privatized their air traffic control systems.

Michael Britt, a senior adviser to Chao, said U.S. officials visited the Canadian air traffic control providers several weeks ago with a delegation of 30 U.S. lawmakers, and the Canadian system could provide a solid model for the U.S. reform effort.

Together with infrastructure investments, the air traffic control reform is one of the Trump administration’s biggest priorities, Britt said.

He said the administration was working with critics in Congress to make the effort as bipartisan as possible.

The FAA spends nearly $10 billion a year on air traffic control funded largely through passenger user fees, and has spent more than $7.5 billion on next-generation air traffic control reforms in recent years.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Mark Potter)

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