Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao talks with audience members after her remarks at the Brown Theatre Friday. | Photo by Boris Ladwig

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said that privatization of the nation’s air traffic control system would alleviate congestion in the skies, reduce plane delays and boost the nation’s economy, especially at important aviation hubs such as Louisville.

Chao on Friday visited the Brown Theatre in Louisville as part of Greater Louisville Inc.’s “Capitol Connection.” GLI representatives had met with U.S. Department of Transportation officials on their recent trip to Washington, D.C.

Chamber officials reiterated Friday that infrastructure, from bridges to airports and waterways, was critical to the region’s quality of life and economic vitality.

Chao said that good infrastructure improves the lives of every American, connects them to essential services and helps them build a sense of community.

Elaine Chao

America’s infrastructure has served as the backbone of the country’s economy, she said, but it has been crumbling and no longer is keeping pace with technological advancements.

Americans spend about 6.9 billion hours sitting in traffic every year, which translates into about $300 billion of wasted fuel and lost productivity, Chao said.

The administration of President Donald Trump wants to streamline the infrastructure permitting processes and make available $200 billion to leverage public-private partnerships to improve the nation’s roads, bridges and airports, she said.

In addition, Chao said, the aging air traffic control system must be updated. Louisville, as the local airport is the nation’s third-largest cargo hub, would see significant benefits from a better air traffic control system, she said.

Trump’s proposal envisions air traffic control functions being transferred from the Federal Aviation Administration to a private nonprofit organization, which would be overseen by the FAA.

Chao said a more modern system would alleviate congestion in the skies and reduce delays. While she emphasized that America had the safest air traffic system in the world, antiquated systems are hampering the system’s efficiency and capabilities.

For example, she said, the nation still is using 1960s-era radar. The system sweeps the skies every six seconds, during which time a jet can travel half a mile. The long intervals between scans require that planes are kept apart at greater distances than they would under a GPS system. Better scans would allow more planes in the sky, she said.

The FAA also is still using paper strips to keep track of flights, Chao said. Some flights between certain cities today take 20 percent more time than 20 years ago, costing the nation $25 billion annually in higher fuel costs and lost productivity.

Improving the system is becoming more urgent because of greater utilization: By 2020, air passenger traffic will exceed one billion, and air freight is expected to double within the next 30 years, Chao said. At the same time, unmanned aircraft systems and drones will have to be accommodated.

UPS planes at UPS Worldport in Louisville.

Data from the Louisville International Airport show that freight volumes leaving and arriving in Louisville have risen this year.

Through May, planes delivered more than two billion pounds of cargo out of Louisville, up 5 percent from last year. Another nearly six billion pounds of freight landed at the Louisville airport, also up about 5 percent from last year.

Passenger volume was about the same.

The FAA generates revenue from passenger fees and taxes, but funding has to be approved by Congress. If air traffic control were run by a private nonprofit, no appropriation from Congress would be required, which would eliminate the risk of federal funding cuts or effects from a government shutdown.

Chao said that removing the air traffic control system from the vagaries of congressional appropriations also would foster more investments into new technology, which would mean more direct flights, shorter flight times and fewer delays.

Mario Diaz-Balart

The privatization proposal is facing some stiff opposition, including from U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., who chairs the House subcommittee that is tasked with funding the FAA. Some critics also have said that a private entity that has as important a task as air traffic control would, if it failed, almost be guaranteed a bailout — with money coming out of taxpayers’ pockets.

Chao on Friday acknowledged that the $200 billion plan and the privatization of air traffic control “are very heavy lifts,” as both would need approval by Congress. The secretary said she hopes to get a legislative package to lawmakers in the fall — though, depending on what happens to the rest of the congressional agenda, that timeline may have to be altered.

Another opponent of air traffic control privatization: Famed Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who after catastrophic engine failures landed a passenger jet safely in New York’s Hudson River in 2009.

Meanwhile, the White House is continuing to lobby legislators: On Wednesday, it sent National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn to meet with congressional leaders to help sell them on the measure.

While privatization of parts of the FAA has been discussed in the U.S. before, under President Ronald Reagan, for example, it has never received enough support in Congress — though it has worked in other countries: Canada privatized its Civil Air Navigation system in 1996.