Air Traffic Proposal Faces Bipartisan Skepticism

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By Shaun Courtney

Hopes for a White House proposal to extract air traffic control operations from the federal government rest in the hands of House Republicans, as the senators tasked with FAA oversight panned the proposal while House Democrats rolled out an alternative June 7.

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee was united in skepticism as Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao defended President Donald Trump’s proposal at a June 7 hearing. The White House’s plan would strip management of the nation’s airspace from the Federal Aviation Administration in the name of efficiency and technological advancement.

Several committee members suggested they would prefer to see a longer extension of the FAA’s authority this year than to slog through debates on the controversial air traffic privatization proposal. The FAA’s current spending authority expires Sept. 30.

“The decision needs to be made by you and other members of the administration: Is our priority a long-term FAA authorization or is it privatization of air traffic control? Because those two things may be mutually exclusive,” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) told Chao.

Rural Jury Is Out

Senators of both parties expressed concern about the impact such a move would have on smaller airports that service rural areas of the country.

“This is a tough sell in states like my state of Mississippi, where the small airports are very concerned about where this will leave them. I think you are going to see this on both sides of the aisle,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said at the hearing. “The sale needs to be made and needs to be made convincingly.”

Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) asked Chao for specifics on how the new entity would ensure rural airspace would have access to airspace and air traffic services. While Chao offered general commitment to safeguarding rural airports, she did not offer any details on what a legislative proposal would do to codify any protections.

Thune told Chao she would need to work with the administration to build a consensus among users, not just the large airlines, but also general aviation if the administration hoped to build support among his committee and in the Senate.

“As you heard today, there are lots of questions on both sides,” Thune said.

Reauthorization vs. Privatization

Ranking member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) told Chao his goal is for the committee to have a “bipartisan and long-term reauthorization” in the next few weeks that would ensure the FAA’s funding for possibly five-years. A longer reauthorization would provide greater certainty, he said.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a pilot herself, said she would rather see Congress create funding certainty like it did with the five-year FAST Act, which funds the Federal Highway Administration, than move towards privatization.

“If Congress was willing to provide FAA with funding certainty, then FAA could plan better, speed up NextGen implementation and avoid a massive, costly and potentially dangerous reorganization of air traffic control system by privatizing it,” Duckworth said.

Kansas’s Moran asked Chao whether she would help the Senate to pass a long-term FAA authorization if it did not have the privatization provision.

“I wish I could answer that question, but as you all know, I cannot,” Chao said.

Fixes Within FAA

Chao’s Senate appearance June 7 will be followed by a hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee June 8, where she is likely to receive a more sympathetic reception from Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and his fellow Republicans. Shuster’s unsuccessful 2016 bill is the basis of the White House proposal.

But House Transportation Democrats will likely echo many of the concerns raised in the Senate hearing.

In addition, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee ranking member Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and aviation subcommittee ranking member Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) introduced to the House an alternative to the White House proposal.

The Aviation Funding Stability Act of 2017 (H.R. 2800) would remove the FAA’s Airport and Airway Trust Fund from the vagaries of the annual appropriations process. One of the Trump administration’s explanations for removing air traffic control from the FAA is that waiting on funding from Congress hampers modernization efforts.

“We would say that [the Trust Fund] becomes mandatory spending off budget, self-funding, not subject to sequestration or shutdown in the future. It’s simple,” DeFazio said.

But Shuster, responding to the Democrats’ bill in a statement, said if their way to fix the FAA was to remove most of the constraints of government, why not remove the function of government entirely?

DeFazio told reporters he expects Shuster’s new push to face the same challenges from appropriators and Ways and Means committee members like it did in 2016; he does not expect it to muster enough support to pass the House.

“It never went anywhere and I would posit it will probably suffer the same fate this year,” said DeFazio. "[My bill], I think has an actual chance of becoming law.”

Thune told Chao his committee would not wait for the Trump administration to offer more details or build a consensus before the Senate advances FAA reauthorization. Thune told Bloomberg BNA that he expects the Senate will leave it to the House to lead on the issue.

“We’ll see if they’ve got the votes,” he said.

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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