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How Trump privatizing air-traffic control will affect your airfare

Air travelers could be in for a bumpy ride thanks to President
Trump’s plans to overhaul the country’s
air-traffic control system.

If the GOP’s plan becomes a reality, the air-traffic control
system would be removed from the auspices of the Federal
Aviation Authority and turned into a nongovernmental nonprofit,
with a board of directors including representatives for
airlines, regulators and consumer advocates. Additionally, the
air-traffic control system would move toward a model based on
GPS technology, rather than the more rudimentary radar-based
technology currently used, meaning — in theory, at least — that
planes could operate more efficiently, use less fuel and charge
less.

The idea of privatizing air-traffic control has been floated
since the 1990s — Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush at
times supported the concept — without success. The current plan
has received the backing of most major airlines and some
consumer advocates — meanwhile opponents include many Democrats
and some Republicans, according to Reuters. When Rep.
Bill Shuster (R, Pa.) put forth a plan to accomplish
this in 2016, it stalled on the floor of the U.S. House of
Representatives.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, a union
representing nearly 20,000 air-traffic controllers and other
aviation safety-related professionals, supported Shuster’s 2016
legislation. “NATCA shares the administration’s commitments to
infrastructure modernization and providing the National
Airspace System (NAS) with a stable, predictable funding
stream,” Paul Rinaldi, the association’s president, said in a
statement. “We look forward to reviewing the specifics of the
air-traffic control (ATC) reform legislation so we can evaluate
whether it satisfies our Union’s principles, including
protecting the rights and benefits of the ATC workforce.”

Proponents of the privatization plan suggest that implementing
it could have myriad benefits — among them reduced delays and
lower greenhouse gas emissions (arguing that planes could
travel more efficiently.) “Today’s White House announcement
puts consumers first — ahead of the status quo,” said Nicholas
Calio, president and chief executive of airline industry
association Airlines for America, in a statement.

Supporters of privatizing air-traffic control system say the
consumers will save money by paying lowers taxes that would
have otherwise have gone to the FAA. Consumers pay a tax when
they book a flight that goes to the FAA to fund its operations,
and airlines also pay taxes on fuel (which are then passed onto
consumers via the cost of a ticket.)

Not all airlines are on board with privatizing air-traffic
control — in part because air travelers may not end up saving
all that much. The privatized air-traffic control entity would
be funded through user fees, but a 2016 study by Delta Air
Lines

DAL, +0.08%

notably the only major U.S. carrier not to support the
privatization plan, found that passengers could be forced to
pay between 20% and 29% more than they do currently in those
fees when booking flights. According to the study, Canada’s
air-traffic control fees rose 59% when the country privatized
its system, and costs ticked up 30% in the U.K. when it
revamped its own system. (Delta would not comment on its
opposition to a private model, with a spokeswoman saying the
company “looks forward to working with the administration and
Congress on our shared goal of modernizing U.S. airspace.”)

See also: 5 airline booking mistakes that can cost
you

In Canada, major carriers such as Air Canada

AC, -2.53%

 and WestJet

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 charge fees based on the mileage traveled to cover the
airline’s dues to Nav Canada, the country’s privately-run
air-traffic control system, said Bob Mann, an industry analyst
and president of R.W. Mann & Co., an airline industry
consulting firm. “Implementing these fees would probably cause
most customers to question whether this is a good deal,” Mann
said.

But some consumer advocates believe that the privatization plan
won’t prevent air travelers’ ability to secure cheap airfares.
Low-cost carriers, such as Ryanair

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-0.19%

 , have thrived in Europe as a result of the
European Union’s deregulation of the industry, even though many
countries there have privatized their air-traffic control
systems, including the U.K., France, Germany and Switzerland.

In fiscal year 2017, Ryanair served 120 million customers, up
57% from 2011. U.S. airlines experienced 27% passenger growth
between 2011 and 2016 comparatively, per data from the Bureau
of Transportation Statistics.

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“Ryanair is going bonkers over there,” said Charles Leocha,
chairman and founder of consumer advocate organization
Travelers United, referring to the European low-cost carrier
that flies in many countries that have privatized air-traffic
control. “If we have to suffer the same way they are, I say
bring it on,” he added. (A spokesperson for Ryanair said that
the company welcomes “any initiatives which improve
[air-traffic control] functions for our customers and lower
costs.”)

A complete overhaul like the one Trump supports may not even be
needed. Delta uses software that optimizes flight arrivals
among the airline’s fleet, so that its planes land in an order
that best serves consumers. Consequently, the airline has among the best ratings when it comes
to on-time arrivals in the industry, boosting overall customer satisfaction with the
airline. No other major U.S. carrier has implemented the
technology. “I’m puzzled why airlines simply won’t do what’s in
their best interest,” Mann said.

Ultimately, how much consumers benefit from a privatized
air-traffic control system may also depend on who leads the
nonprofit that would oversee it. “Right now one of the number
one issues I have with the bill is the formation of the board
of directors,” Leocha said. “The airlines cannot control the
board of directors — if they have control of the system, then
consumers get screwed.”

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