The chief executive of Delta Air Lines has unambiguously thrown his support behind a plan to remove US air traffic control (ATC) from the hands of the Federal Aviation Administration, unifying the US industry's support for a major overhaul.
"We are huge proponents of the president's agenda to modernise the air traffic control system," Delta CEO Ed Bastian says at the Global Business Travel Association event in Boston on 18 July. "This is the only game in town in terms of moving things forward… and we are 100% behind it."
In June, President Donald Trump publicly advocated a plan to strip ATC from the FAA's purview, placing it under the management of a not-for-profit entity controlled by aviation users, including representatives from the government, airlines, airports, general aviation and unions.
Congressman Bill Shuster, chair of the House Transportation Committee, followed up by drafting the required legislation.
That bill, which is working through Congress, faces opposition from some Democrats and pushback from the general aviation and business aviation communities.
But the plan has been among the top legislative priorities for trade group Airlines for America (A4A) for several years. The idea has also enjoyed broad support from most US airlines, with the exception - until now - of Delta.
The Atlanta-based carrier had staunchly opposed the plan and repeatedly described it as "privatisation" – language other opponents used when framing the plan as a gift to big carriers.
Other airlines, by contrast, have used the term "corporatisation", noting that government representatives would have seats on the new ATC organisation's board.
Delta cited its opposition when it withdrew from A4A in 2015 and, in February 2016, released a report warning that privatisation could increase airlines' operational costs by 20% and 29% after ten years.
"Delta has long held that removing the air traffic organisation, which provides air navigation services across the US, out from under FAA’s safety oversight is a bad idea," Delta said in a media release in 2016.
Delta largely kept quiet as political developments progressed in recent months, but Bastian broke silence during the company's second quarter earnings call on 13 July.
"We’re not philosophically opposed to privatisation," Bastian said, signaling the position shift.
He reiterated that line on 18 July before expressing "100%" support for Trump's plan. Bastion said the US ATC needs "a structure and mechanism" to implement upgrades that are likely to cost $30 billion to $50 billion over the next ten to 15 years.