Air Traffic Plan an Airline ‘Power Grab': Consumer Group

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By Shaun Courtney

Consumer advocates and some lawmakers concerned about airline passenger rights say they worry the White House proposal to strip air traffic control from the government hands over too much control to the nation’s airlines.

Proponents say the proposal will allow technological advances and a reliable fee-based funding stream exempt from the political jockeying of annual appropriations.

The goal of the plan is to move air traffic control to a non-governmental body, a plan modeled on a failed 2016 bill by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.). Consumer groups, however, say the effect of the hand-off will be higher fees and cost-shifting onto consumers.

The president’s plan would speed up modernization efforts and benefit passengers by reducing delays, Airlines for America, an airline industry group, said in a June 5 statement.

“I think that’s all bogus,” Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee ranking member Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) told Bloomberg BNA. Nelson also serves on the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance, and Data Security.

Power Grab?

The president’s air traffic control proposal would give “carte blanche” to the airlines, which have an “abysmal” track record of taking on fees and being unresponsive to the needs of the flying public, National Consumers League Executive Director Sally Greenberg said.

Air traffic control is currently funded through taxes, but under the new regime, costs would be covered through user fees.

“We have no reason to believe the scenario will be any different if [the airlines] ran and operated the air traffic control system. For them, it’s just a power grab which would enable them to raise fees and rates and add on taxes, etc., to consumers without any real oversight,” Greenberg told Bloomberg BNA.

The White House proposal initially would give the airlines just two dedicated seats on the 13-member governing board for the new air traffic entity. Unions, airports, general aviation, and government would also have seats within the organization. That board structure would only be in place initially, meaning the airlines could eventually control more of the organization than the initial two seats.

“Privatization eliminates the chance for Congress and the American people to provide oversight, creates uncertainty in the marketplace, and is likely to raise costs for consumers,” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), chairman of the consumer protection subcommittee, said in a statement June 5.

Technology Advancements

Shuster frequently references the paper slips controllers use to help monitor the flow of air traffic, saying his proposal would expedite the implementation of digital systems. The union for air traffic controllers supported the 2016 Shuster bill because they wanted to see technological advances, which they believe have been slow and expensive under the Federal Aviation Administration.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association did not give a full-throated endorsement to the White House proposal, stating June 5 that the union needed to see the specifics of the legislation first.

Consumer groups, however, question whether the airlines could be trusted to invest the user fees in better technology.

“All this talk about modernization. I’ll believe it when I see it,” Greenberg said.

Nelson also questioned whether airlines were any better equipped to upgrade the nation’s air traffic control operations.

“Airlines are having trouble with their IT systems. Now do you want to turn over air traffic control—the safest in the world, in the most complicated airspace in the world—you want to turn that over to the airlines?” Nelson said to Bloomberg BNA.

The air traffic control proposal could move forward as part of the Federal Aviation Administration authorization, due by Sept. 30.

Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao will discuss FAA reauthorization and the air traffic control proposal at a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing on June 7 and a House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure hearing on June 8.

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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