A bipartisan group of nine former senior government officials, including three former transportation secretaries, have joined the fight over privatizing the U.S. air traffic control (ATC) network. 

In a letter Monday to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the nine former officials called for Congress to transfer operational and funding control of ATC from the auspices of the FAA to a nonprofit entity that would be a governed by a board of stakeholders and users of the nation¹s aviation system. The FAA should maintain control of ATC safety oversight, said the group.

The letter was signed by former George W. Bush transportation secretaries Norman Mineta and Mary Peters, as well as by former Reagan transportation secretary James Burnley.

Other signatories include former South Dakota Sen. Bryon Dorgan (a Democrat), Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican who served as Senate majority leader from 1996 to 2002), and Randy Babbitt, FAA administrator in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2011.

"There was a time when the United States was the gold standard in every aspect of air traffic control. Those days of global leadership, regrettably, are gone," the group wrote. "The U.S. no longer has the most modern equipment, the most efficient airplane routings or the best technology of any of the world's air traffic control providers."

Debate has heated up ahead of a March 31 deadline for FAA reauthorization. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is expected to include a proposal to privatize ATC in the reauthorization package. Along with the former government officials, the concept has the support of the U.S. airline industry trade group Airlines for America (A4A).

Both argue that turning ATC over to a nonprofit would speed implementation of NexGen, the GPS-based technology that is replacing the radar-based system currently in use in the U.S., while removing ATC from the uncertainty of the highly politicized appropriations process in Congress.

But the proposal has drawn strong opposition from Delta and from Americans Against Air Traffic Privatization, a coalition of advocacy groups.

Opponents argue that the process of reorganizing how the ATC is administered would delay the implementation of NexGen. Privatizing the ATC would also increase costs, the coalition says.

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