Trump Begins The American Kleptocracy With Air Traffic Control

Donald Trump came to the Oval Office as an open admirer of his patron Vladimir Putin, praising the Russian strongman as a “great leader.” This week, he’s focused on initiatives to privatize public infrastructure in a clear imitation of the Russian crony capitalist style.

Whereas Putin sold off state industries and assets at fire sale prices to his friends, most of whom have become billionaire oligarchs as a result, Trump is starting out with the nation’s air traffic control system, then moving on to roads and bridges.

“We are prepared to enter a great new era in American aviation,” Trump said in an announcement at the White House this morning. “It’s time to join the future and make flights quicker, safer, more reliable.”

In fact, removing air traffic control systems from oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration and putting them into a nonprofit corporation would effectively leave the airlines in charge of regulating their own flight paths.

The idea is not uniformly popular in the business community. According to the Washington Post, “the National Business Aviation Association and the General Aviation Manufacturers Association” both say “that private air traffic management would give large airlines too much control and threaten private aviation in smaller communities.”

Unlike many countries, the US system still uses ground-based radar instead of satellite GPS. The FAA has worked to make changes, but the industry complains that the process isn’t fast enough, and air traffic controllers say that funding streams have been too uncertain in the age of Republican governance.

Trump’s plan is based on legislation by Rep. Bill Schuster (R-PA) that failed to get a vote in the House of Representatives. Schuster admitted to a romantic relationship with an airline lobbyist in 2015.

The Alliance for Aviation Across America opposes the idea, saying that it “would be a virtual blank check to the airlines for collusion and abuse of competition, such as limiting competitors’ access to runways, manipulating the flow of air traffic, charging endless new fees and charges, and shutting competitors out from certain airports or communities.”

Hardly a bastion of liberalism, Fortune says that a privatized system will advantage the airlines over private aviation. Many pilots worry that such a change would harm public safety.

“Only two other major countries have privatized air traffic control, Canada and Britain, but their air systems are much smaller,” the New York Times editorial board wrote in February. “Other countries like Germany and France run air traffic through government-owned companies.”

Furthermore, privatization has not held down costs. Quite the opposite, in fact. Delta, which is the only large airline to oppose privatizing air traffic control, notes that costs have risen much faster in Canada and Britain than the US, which has the most commercial air traffic of any nation.

While there are arguments on both sides of the air traffic control issue, the rest of Trump’s privatization initiatives will prove even more contentious.

This week, Trump is supposed to speak on the banks of the Ohio river, visit the Department of Transportation in Washington, and hold a meeting with mayors and governors to press for privatized roads and bridges and rails.

Beloved by libertarian idealists and nobody else, toll roads and toll bridges make travel far more expensive for consumers. But Trump and his economic adviser Gary Cohn, a Goldman Sachs alum, are quite enthusiastic about selling off American transportation infrastructure.

“In many of these areas, we’re falling behind, and the falling behind is affecting economic growth in the United States,” Cohn tells the Post. Indeed, the United States has developed a massive, multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure deficit according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

But that’s largely thanks to Republicans in Congress who oppose infrastructure spending on ideological grounds. President Obama proposed more than one infrastructure development plan only to have the Republican majority decline to even consider them.

Trump’s proposal to finance a trillion dollars of infrastructure spending with just $200 billion in taxpayer funds through privatization of those assets is supposed to circumvent that Republican resistance, but many of those same legislators are reportedly leery of selling off public assets.

Democrats, who support public infrastructure spending but largely oppose selling public properties and institutions, are unlikely to fall in line with Trump’s plan, either.

However, there is one man who would be very pleased if America started selling off its critical assets, especially to foreign investors — and Vladimir Putin’s opinion might be the only one that really matters to Donald Trump.

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