President Donald Trump got in a fight, as he is wont to do, with the Federal Aviation Administration following a meeting with airline industry bigwigs on Thursday. Trump’s chief criticism was the FAA’s long-awaited overhaul of its air traffic control system, known as NextGen. He cited delays and the cost of the program as big problems, and claimed that NextGen’s “not going to be a good system” even when it’s complete. An aviation expert says the president’s claims are misguided and may misrepresent what NextGen really is.
NextGen, which is short for Next Generation Air Transportation System, is an ongoing process to replace America’s half-century-old radio and radar-based air traffic system to one that uses satellite GPS to more accurately track planes, giving them greater freedom to shorten their routes, among other benefits. Phil Derner, the founder of NYC Aviation tells Inverse that the current system is a zig-zag of relays — planes traveling in straight lines until they hit a navigational aid, at which point they make another beeline for the next aid.
“GPS technology allows aircraft to kind of step off of the highway,” Derner says, explaining that the increased accuracy frees planes up from traveling along the same fixed pattern of routes. “GPS technology is like making your car an airplane.”
The president, who owned an airline of his own, Trump Shuttle, for three years before it went out of business, is pretty negative about NextGen. “I hear the government contracted for a system that’s the wrong system. I hear were spending billions and billions of dollars,” he said during the White House Meeting. “It’s a system that’s totally out of whack. It’s way over budget. It’s way behind schedule. And when it’s complete, it’s not going to be a good system. Other than that, it’s fantastic,” Trump added, presumably being more than a little sarcastic with his final comment.
Derner says this talk of delays misses the larger point of NextGen. “The confusion is that people think that NextGen has not been implemented yet,” Derner explains. “Parts of it have. There’s much more GPS navigation than there has been over the last several years.”
He says that adoption of NextGen varies depending on the airport, airline, and a host of other factors, but says it’s being implemented “more and more.”
What Trump is saying, Derner tells Inverse, isn’t new.
“This has happened in the past when congressmen or senators will complain about this, but the fault actually lies with the senate and congress themselves for not passing budgets quick enough,” Derner says. “I’m amazed that there’s as much NextGen implemented as there is, considering.”
As for Trump’s claims that the system won’t be good once it’s finished?
“I don’t know what he’s talking about,” Derner says. “I don’t know what the big complaint is. When implemented, is it going to solve all our issues? No, it won’t, but I think NextGen is a pretty good system. It’s just the rhetoric of acting like it’s a broken system when it’s not.”
The FAA released a statement defending NextGen following Trump’s comments, calling it “one of the most ambitious infrastructure and modernization projects in U.S. history.”
Derner, who is an aircraft dispatcher himself, says the FAA does a good job making flying safer than it’s ever been. He sites an astounding statistic back in the ‘80s, commercial airlines had fatality rates in the double digits every year. In the past seven years, only two people have died in a plane crash (a third person was killed in the 2013 Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco, but it was due to an accident on the ground).
Still, there’s a movement among congress and several major airlines to break air traffic control into a separate operation, though Politico reported that Trump “stopped short” of backing any such initiative during Thursday’s meeting.
The president did, however, have another complaint about the FAA — that the current FAA Administrator, an Obama appointee named Michael Huerta, isn’t a commercial pilot. “I think it maybe would be good to have a pilot — like a really good pilot that knows what’s going on,” he said.
“Having someone to run the FAA who has a pilot’s license might be great, but taking an airline pilot and making the assumption that they are a master of knowledge about the industry is not an accurate assumption to make,” Derner says in response to that. “There’s much more that goes into our industry than just knowing how to fly an aircraft.”
Photos via Getty Images / Win McNamee, Getty Images / Jeff Swensen