One of Trump’s stated arguments for his plan is that it will make flying safer, but this is fairly flimsy reasoning. Opponents rightly point out that flying is as safe as it’s ever been: Tens of thousands of flights take to the skies every day across America and they (almost always) land without incident. The last fatal crash of a U.S. passenger plane was in 2009. Since then, the nation’s commercial accident record has been spotless.
Further, airplanes today are designed differently compared to decades prior, and their safety record has less to do with air-traffic control’s governance structure and more to do with how modern planes are manufactured. For example, improvements in propulsion mechanics mean that engines fail far less than they used to. And structural-engineering advances mean that corrosion of planes’ bodies no longer forces them out of the sky.
Another argument for privatization, one that has more merit, has to do with how the air-traffic control system gets its funding. The FAA is largely supported by fees collected from passengers, and taxes are imposed on everything from tickets to frequent-flyer miles to jet fuel. While the revenue collected is deposited into a trust fund, its use must be approved by Congress. This model can subject the agency to the ill effects of political gridlock. One example of this that gets brought up often is the partial government shutdown of 2013. In the fall of that year, thousands of FAA workers (including some in safety-sensitive positions) were furloughed, affecting the agency’s ability to complete its mission. Privatization would avert a scenario like this because funds would flow directly from passengers and airlines to the air-traffic service provider.
Privatizing a portion of the FAA would also, according to some, make the agency as a whole more nimble. The FAA has proven itself slow at adopting new technologies, often relying on antiquated systems from a bygone era, including World War II-era radar and spotty radios that link controllers on the ground to pilots in the air. Newer systems are available, but slow-moving bureaucracy often makes these systems obsolete by the time they are acquired (if they happen to be acquired at all).
But privatizing air-traffic control would come with some downsides too. For one thing, a private entity providing critical air-traffic services would necessarily be considered too big to fail. This means taxpayers could potentially be on the hook to bail out that entity—in the name of safety—should it go under.
Trump’s privatization plans also concern small airports, which might see their interests overlooked by a new organization that reports to businessmen rather than elected officials. Specifically, these regional airports are worried that privatization would encourage, rather than reverse, the worrying trend of decreased service to smaller markets. This trend has to do with the airline industry’s economics: Small airports cater to small communities and this ultimately means fewer fare-paying passengers. The airplanes best suited for these markets are regional jets with up to 100 seats. But these jets are also, on a per-passenger basis, between 40 and 60 percent less fuel-efficient than bigger passenger planes, which matters tremendously in an industry with such slim profit margins and high fuel costs. This explains why major U.S. carriers have scaled back flights to rural communities, preferring instead to service larger, more revenue-rich locations. Communities with small airports worry that privatizing a substantial part of the regulatory body of the aviation industry will make this trend worse.