Privatizing Air Traffic Control Would Hurt Innovation: Appropriator

By Shaun Courtney

Splitting air traffic control operations from the Federal Aviation Administration would create a monopoly dominated by airlines that might discourage competition and innovation, the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation told Bloomberg BNA.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) questioned a proposal to partially privatize the nation’s air traffic control system, saying it would give airlines control of the nation’s airspace. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the proposal’s sponsor, has been making a renewed push for the plan this year after it failed to get a full House vote in 2016.

But Diaz-Balart’s role as an appropriator could be a major hurdle for Shuster’s proposal.

“What incentive do [airlines] have to share that airspace?” Diaz-Balart said.

Shuster Defends Privatization

Shuster, with support from industry group Airlines for America, has been pushing for an independent non-governmental organization to help advance the nation’s air traffic control system more quickly, outside the confines of annual appropriations to the FAA. The new entity would still be regulated by the Transportation Department and the FAA, and overseen by Congress.

Shuster took issue with Diaz-Balart’s suggestion that airlines would have a “monopoly.”

“To assert that my proposal would in any way give control of the airspace or benefit a certain user group is a complete mischaracterization,” he said in a written statement to Bloomberg BNA. “This is about taking a failed government service out of the FAA and placing it in an independent, not-for-profit entity, under the direction of a board that is representative of our diverse aviation community.”

The directors on the board overseeing the new entity would be prohibited from being employed by, or having a “significant relationship” with, airlines, unions or other stakeholders, he said.

Drones would also benefit from technological advances that would emerge from “modernizing our nation’s antiquated [air traffic control] system” under the plan, Airlines for America spokesperson Vaughn Jennings told Bloomberg BNA in an email.

Shuster’s bill to spin off air traffic control was approved by the transportation committee last year but did not get a full House vote. He held a May 17 hearing on the need to change the FAA in a renewed push for his measure.

“FAA’s structure and how air traffic is managed have been broken for decades. The decisions we make in the FAA reauthorization bill this year will either move us toward the 21st century aviation system America needs or doom us to repeating the failures of the past over and over again,” Shuster said during remarks at the panel.

‘Radical Changes’ to Airspace

Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), ranking member on the Appropriations transportation subcommittee, sought reassurance that the FAA was supportive of emerging technologies and had the funding needed to prepare for the increasing presence of drones in the airspace.

“There will be points at which we’re doing—certainly what now looks like—radical changes in the way we manage air traffic, airspace,” Price said May 18.

Industry representatives told the committee’s appropriators that the FAA has made strides in recent years to collaborate with the industry. Last June the FAA released the Part 107 drone operation rules, which went into effect in August, and allowed the operation of small unmanned aircraft systems.

The FAA has made a “serious effort” to communicate with the industry when creating regulations, Brian Wynne, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, told the committee.

“We’ve been working for accommodations in the airspace. Eventually that will start to become integration into the airspace,” Wynne said.

The FAA is working with NASA and industry leaders to develop a drone traffic management program that could be folded into air traffic control.

“By no means have we figured it all out,” Wynne said.

Wynne urged the committee to make sure the FAA has the funding it needs to upgrade its infrastructure and continue its work on integrating new technology, like drones.

Price and Diaz-Balart both expressed interest in ensuring sufficient funding for the FAA in the FY 18 budget. President Donald Trump’s full budget is expected May 23 and will be the starting point for Congress to set priorities for the coming year.

The FAA is due for a reauthorization by the end of September.

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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