House FAA Reauthorization Unveiled, Includes Air Traffic Proposal

By Shaun Courtney

House legislation to reauthorize federal aviation programs before their funding expires Sept. 30 was unveiled June 21 by transportation committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.). A Senate version is expected this week.

The six-year draft House bill, the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act (AIRRACT), would remove air traffic control (ATC) operations from the Federal Aviation Administration, a proposal supported by the White House.

Two key changes from a similar, failed 2016 bill are that general aviation users wouldn’t be required to pay user fees to the new organization envisioned to run air traffic control, and the new entity’s 13-member board structure would include three seats for airlines instead of four. A June 5 plan from the White House called for two seats for airlines.

“I believe this bill improves upon the bill that we put forth last Congress. My metric for saying it’s improved is we gained support,” Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Shuster told reporters.

Building Support on ATC

Commercial air carriers, such as American Airlines Group Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co., have backed the proposal from the start. General and business aviation have been less supportive.

House General Aviation Caucus Co-Chairman Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) opposed Shuster’s similar 2016 proposal but is backing the 2017 iteration, according to Shuster.

“We have gotten Sam Graves on board, which is big,” Shuster said.

Graves’s office did not return a request for comment.

The 2017 plan, unlike last year’s failed bill, exempts general aviation from user fees, which is one of the reasons Shuster said he was able to assuage Graves’s concerns.

Under the new structure, general aviation users would continue to pay a fuel tax to support the airport improvement program, which funds upgrades to capital items like runways for many general aviation airports. Shuster is still working with the Ways and Means Committee to determine how the fuel tax will work because the new private entity cannot legally collect taxes.

Even if Graves has come on board, general aviation industry groups remain opposed. “We have concluded that these reforms, while well intentioned, will produce uncertainty and unintended consequences without achieving the desired outcomes,” six general aviation groups said in a joint statement.Another area where Shuster believes his changes have earned him broader support is the board structure.

The 13-member board would include three directors selected by airlines, one each for general aviation, business aviation, air traffic controllers, airports, and commercial airline pilots. The Department of Transportation would select two board members. There would be two directors at large and a CEO selected by the other members.

“This is the most important piece of the entire piece of legislation, the governance. If the governance is right then I believe this will be a success,” Shuster told reporters. He said he wanted the structure to make sure the board is “balanced” and “transparent.”

As a publicly chartered organization the board will have a fiduciary responsibility to the ATC organization, not the representative groups that selected each board member, Shuster noted.

Transportation Committee ranking member Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who earlier released his own proposal to modernize air traffic control within the FAA, remains opposed to Shuster’s plan.

“The legislation does nothing to address the major concerns raised by a bipartisan group of opponents about whether air traffic control privatization would guarantee safety, protect national security, expedite new technology, and keep our aviation system solvent,” DeFazio said in a statement to Bloomberg BNA.

Passenger Perspective

The federal aviation program reauthorization bill also includes provisions prompting the Department of Transportation to clarify the language that protects passengers.

The Shuster proposal calls on the FAA to clarify language that says passengers cannot be involuntarily bumped from a flight once they have boarded; airlines must offer compensation, not wait for passenger requests; and sets forth the current compensation rates listed in federal regulations as the minimum that can be given, among other clarifications.

The impacts of the switch over to a private board controlling air traffic, however, will not be noticeable immediately.

“On Day 1, they’ll see nothing different,” said Shuster.

Shuster has long pitched the move as one that promotes efficiency and technological advancement, which he and industry proponents have said will offer consumers benefits like more on-time departures and less time in the air.

Looking Ahead

Shuster is expected to officially introduce his bill this week and shepherd it through markup June 27. He is bullish that he will be able to get the proposal with ATC approved before the Sept. 30 deadline.

“The plan is to get it through committee next week and then get it off the floor. Then we’ll deal with the Senate,” Shuster told reporters.

A Senate version from Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) is also expected this week and Thune has consistently said his version will not include the ATC proposal.

When pressed about whom he was working with in the Senate, Shuster said “anybody who will listen to me,” but wouldn’t offer any names. Both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have expressed concern about and some outright opposition to the air traffic control proposal.

Shuster said he is confident he can win senators over when he explains the merits of it once he gets it out of the House. He also thinks time is on his side.

“The looming date of Sept. 30, that pressure always gets people to sort of try to get their heads wrapped around what’s moving forward,” Shuster said.

The bills would probably come to the the floors of both chambers after the July Fourth holiday.

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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