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Trump's budget calls for higher passenger fees and a privatized air traffic control system

The first budget proposal by the Trump administration calls for big changes to the way Americans fly, including a plan to privatize the air traffic control system and raise passenger security fees.

Reaction to the president’s ideas has been mixed from airlines, airport managers and passenger advocates. The proposed changes come in era of strong air travel demand and record or near-record profits reported by the airline industry over the last few years.

During his campaign for president, Trump compared some U.S. airports to “third world” facilities. In February, he met with airline executives in the White House and promised to help modernize the industry.

In total, the Trump budget proposal calls for a 13% cut in the Department of Transportation’s budget. The cuts include reducing subsidies to Amtrak for “long distance train services, which have long been inefficient and incur the vast majority of Amtrak’s operating losses.” Another big cut would be to the Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes commercial air service to rural airports. The budget also eliminates a local transportation grant program

Privatizing air traffic control

Trump’s $1.1-trillion budget outline says spinning off air traffic operations from the Federal Aviation Administration and placing them under an “independent, nongovernmental organization” would make the system “more efficient and innovative while maintaining safety.”

There are about 50,000 average daily flights in the United States involving commercial airliners, cargo carriers and other planes, and last year the system handled the bulk of a record 823 million passengers traveling on U.S. airlines for domestic and international flights.

The nation’s biggest commercial airlines support the privatization idea, saying a privatized air traffic control operation would speed up a modernization plan that airline officials say has been bogged down by the FAA.

Canada transferred its air traffic system to a private, nonprofit group in 1996.

The modernization program that airlines are calling for is dubbed NextGen. It would convert the air traffic system from one that relies on outdated radar technology to modern satellite and digital technology. Under the modernization program, airplanes could fly on more direct routes while flying in closer proximity to each other.

Under Trump’s plan, the FAA would continue its oversight of air-travel safety.

The airline trade group Airlines for America says the system is long overdue for the modernization that only a private operator could furnish.

“Our system is safe, but it is outdated and not as efficient as it should — or could — be,” Nicholas Calio, Airlines for America’s chief executive, said in a statement Thursday.

But small and general aviation airports as well as local government officials oppose privatization, fearing that the private body overseeing air traffic control would be dominated by the nation’s major carriers who may not look after the interests of small airports.

“This proposal would allow certain private interests to make critical system decisions ranging from infrastructure funding, to taxes and fees, according to their own best interest rather than that of the public,” a coalition of privatization opponents, called the Alliance for Aviation Across America, said in a statement Thursday.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Assn., the union representing about 14,000 FAA controllers, said it “will carefully evaluate” the White House proposal. The union said its support required, among other things, that a new system protect its workers “rights and benefits.”

Increased TSA fees

Trump’s budget also calls for an increase to the so-called 9/11 fee, which is used to fund the screening and security work of the Transportation Security Administration in more than 400 airports nationwide. The budget report says Trump wants the fee increased so that it covers 75% of the TSA operations.

The budget proposal does not spell out the exact increase, but the news site Politico reported last month that Trump wants to add $1 to the $5.60 fee per one-way trip.

The hike would come less than three years after Congress raised the fee from $2.50 with a $5 cap, to a flat fee of $5.60 per one-way trip with no cap. A portion of the funding generated by the increase was diverted to the U.S. Treasury to help reduce the deficit.

The airline industry opposes the fee increase, saying they fear it won’t be spent on its intended use: speeding or improving the screening process at airports.

“Tax increases are not the answer,” said Vaughn Jennings, a spokesman for Airline for America, the trade group for the nation’s airlines.

Charlie Leocha, chairman of Travelers United, a passenger rights group, said his group would not oppose an increase if Congress guarantees that the revenues won’t be diverted.

“We are fine with it as long as it stays with the TSA,” he said.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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