Air Traffic Control Privatization Proposal Faces Uncertainty

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By Shaun Courtney

Congressional leaders in both parties are skeptical of the latest bid to pluck the U.S. air traffic control system from the Federal Aviation Administration, creating a private body to manage the nation’s passenger air travel.

President Donald Trump’s plan to spin off the nation’s air traffic management into a “co-op” type structure closely models House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster’s (R-Pa.) 2016 bill, which did not reach the House floor for a vote, let alone make it to the Senate.

The proposal announced June 5 got a muted reception from congressional Republicans and opposition from top Democrats, including members of the committees responsible for FAA oversight.

Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said any such plan would require “bipartisan” support.

Thune’s Democratic counterpart on the committee, Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.), harshly criticized Trump’s proposal.

“Handing air traffic control over to a private entity partly governed by the airlines is both a risk and liability we can’t afford to take,” Nelson said in a statement provided to Bloomberg BNA.

The Proposal

Shuster said during remarks June 5 at the White House that his goal was to get the government out of the way to allow for quicker technological advances to an outdated air traffic system, which in some cases relies on paper rather than technology to manage planes.

“Government bureaucracy and Congress—and Congress I’ll add—has held back innovation in American aviation,” Shuster said.

The new air traffic control system would be financed through fees paid by users of the airspace and would be more efficient and less burdensome than the “patchwork” of aviation taxes that supports the system today, according to a fact sheet issued by the White House.

A 13-member board, initially including representatives from the airlines, unions, airports, general aviation and government, would govern the organization. Congress would retain oversight of air traffic control, but would no longer control funding through annual appropriations. The FAA would regulate the new entity.

“These reforms will benefit everyone who flies as well as the hard-working air traffic controllers who operate the system,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said during remarks at the White House on June 5.

Industry Responds

Airlines for America, an industry group for most of the major U.S. airlines except Delta, blames outdated air traffic technology for nearly half of U.S. flight delays, which the group estimates cost the economy $25 billion in 2016. The group praised in a June 5 statement the president for his proposal because of the innovation they believe will follow.

The union for air traffic controllers, which previously endorsed Shuster’s 2016 plan, was more cautious in its response to the Trump administration’s principles.

“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,” National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi said in a statement.

General aviation groups such as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association continue to oppose removing air traffic from the FAA.

“While AOPA is open to proposals aimed at making the air traffic control system more efficient and delivering technology in a timely and cost effective manner, we have consistently said we will not support policies that impose user fees on general aviation,” group President Mark Baker said in a statement.

Congressional Outlook

The eventual legislative proposal is expected to come out of Shuster’s committee as part of the FAA reauthorization; the current authorization expires at the end of September. The Senate is also working on FAA reauthorization, but Thune previously told Bloomberg BNA the House would have to lead on any ATC changes.

The bipartisan skepticism, especially among leaders like Thune, means a tough road ahead for a proposal Trump has thrown his weight behind as an example of his leadership in infrastructure investment and modernization.

“Privatization was a bad idea when it was proposed in the last Congress, and it remains a bad idea today despite President Trump’s support,” the top Democrat on House T&I, Rep. Peter DeFazio (Ore.), said in a statement to Bloomberg BNA. “Committee Democrats are working on targeted reforms to help speed up the FAA’s modernization efforts without privatizing the system. We hope these reforms will be bipartisan.”

Chao will discuss FAA reauthorization and the air traffic control proposal at hearings in the Senate on June 7 and in the House on June 8.

— With assistance from Cheryl Bolen.

To contact the reporter on this story: Shaun Courtney in Washington at scourtney@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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