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Trump budget proposal seeks to remove ATC from the FAA

Updated on 15 March in last three paragraphs to include comments from the Regional Airline Association.

US president Donald Trump's fiscal year 2018 budget proposal calls for shifting air traffic control out of the purview of the Federal Aviation Administration and into a non-governmental organisation, a change that much of the commercial aviation industry has called for.

The draft budget "initiates a multi-year reauthorisation proposal to shift the air traffic control function of the Federal Aviation Administration to an independent, non-governmental organisation, making the system more efficient and innovative while maintaining safety", say budget documents released by the White House on 16 March.

"This would benefit the flying public and taxpayers overall," it adds.

Until now, President Trump's support for restructuring US ATC had been suspected but not confirmed. The president has repeatedly called for measures to make government more efficient and effective, and Trump has called for $1 trillion in infrastructure investments.

In February, Trump said of the FAA: "I hear we are spending billions and billions of dollars. It's a system that's totally out of whack."

His budget proposal does not include details about the ATC plans or about specific funding levels for the FAA.

However, it would provide the Department of Transportation, which includes the FAA, $16.2 billion in fiscal year 2018, down 13% from fiscal year 2017.

The US government's 2018 fiscal year begins in October, and Trump's proposal will now be debated by the US Senate and House of Representatives.

Most US airlines and trade group Airlines for America (A4A) have, in recent years, advocated the changes highlighted in the president's budget proposal.

In February 2016, Republican lawmaker Bill Shuster, who is also chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, proposed a six-year FAA funding bill that would have created a not-for-profit ATC corporation governed by a board composed of system users and funded by users.

Shuster's bill stalled and Congress then passed a temporary FAA funding bill that lacked ATC overhaul.

Advocates have argued that the FAA has struggled to implement next-generation ATC modernisations largely because of funding uncertainty caused by the agency's reliance on Congressionally-approved spending bills.

For years, the FAA has operated under short-term bills, making long-term planning difficult, some say.

However, industry behemoth Delta Air Lines, alone among large US airlines, opposes the ATC overhaul, arguing that airlines should work within the current system to improve efficiency.

Still, the industry largely welcomed the language in Trump's budget proposal.

"This is a bold step that will lead to the governance and funding reforms needed to move our air traffic control infrastructure into the 21st century,” A4A chief executive Nicholas Calio says in a statement. "This approach gets politics out of the way by guaranteeing a predictable and reliable funding stream that allows for long-term capital improvements that will be used to modernise the ATC system."

"We welcome the Trump administration’s support for ATC reform," says IATA vice-president of external relations Doug Lavin in a statement. "The constraints of the federal budgetary, managerial and procurement processes create enormous structural hurdles to modernisation. Now is the time to move forward with transformation in the US through the creation of a separate, corporatised non-profit entity to manage US skies."

Though the Regional Airline Association has not taken a stance on ATC privatisation, the group released a statement expressing concern that ATC changes could negatively impact US regional airlines, many of which already face a shortage of qualified pilots.

“We have very specific concerns with ATC reform proposals that lack representation for regional airlines and carry the potential to dramatically increase costs for regional airline flight segments," RAA president Faye Malarkey Black says in a media release.

“If policymakers move forward with ATC reform, they must avoid placing additional cost burdens on regional airline flight segments that keep rural America connected. Additionally, regional airlines must have representation on any envisioned governance board that is commensurate with operating 44%of the nation’s departures," says the RAA.

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