Capitol Measures

Washington, DC, July 29, 2009 -- NLE'09 in the FEMA Sim Center. FEMA/Bill Koplitz

US President Trump’s next budget proposal once again features language proposing shifting the air traffic control function of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to an independent, non-governmental, co-operative organisation.
The White House has proposed placing the FAA Air Traffic Organization and its 14,000 controllers under the umbrella of a government-chartered nonprofit corporation funded by taxes on airline tickets and aviation fuel.
Representative Bill Shuster, the Republican chairman of the House transportation committee, has championed the plan for the past two years, and while he did gain support from his committee, the proposal faced opposition from some Republicans and most Democrats and did not secure endorsement from the full House. In the Senate, some Republicans also openly opposed the plan which ultimately failed to feature in FAA reauthorisation legislation last year.
Shuster, in response to the White House infrastructure plan that has just been announced, acknowledged that legislation needed to be bipartisan, fiscally responsible, and make real long-term investments.
Trump’s renewed commitment to the proposed spin-off drew expected criticism from the plan’s long time opponents. General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) president and CEO Pete Bunce said: “The saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” most definitely applies here – why do we need to disrupt an entire system and change it, when the US system is the safest, most efficient in the world?”
“The Administration and a few members of Congress continue to offer proposals that would take the management of air traffic control operations from the FAA, which places the public interest as its top priority, and give that management to a private entity that would only be responsible to a small, insular board.
“The proposals remain a bad idea that lack industry and political consensus, particularly at a time when new industries like commercial space, unmanned aerial vehicles and urban mobility air vehicles will share the nation’s airspace. These air traffic control privatization proposals also continue to be the main reason that other necessary regulatory and certification reforms remain in legislative limbo, delaying what could otherwise be immediate, positive impacts on not just the US airspace system and its users, but also the country’s economy and job creation. They should not be held hostage any longer by unproductive discussions about an unneeded and potentially devastating change to the world’s safest system.”
The Alliance for Aviation Across America (AAAA) which was established specifically to oppose the plans said rural communities depended on access to the aviation system for many vital activities. “Yet, this proposal would allow the airlines to focus resources and funding toward only the few biggest hubs they care about most, and ultimately, it does nothing to improve delays or enhance modernisation.
”Most importantly, it would take away Congressional oversight over our system, which ensures that the system operates in the public’s best interest. That is why it has been widely opposed by consumer groups, businesses, rural and agricultural organisations, local elected officials and mayors across our country.”
Crunch Time
Corporatisation champion Bob Poole argues that it’s crunch time for ATC corporatisation: “The front group for business jets (NBAA) and private pilots (AOPA) which is called the Alliance for Aviation Across America (AAAA) has been hard at work creating fear, uncertainty, and doubt among rural elected officials and directors of small airports.”
He said AAAA claims that shifting ATC from the FAA to a nonprofit stakeholder-governed corporation like Nav Canada would actually mean turning over the system to the “big airlines,” and that this would lead to reduced funding for small airports and possible closure of their control towers are not true.
“But hardly a week goes by without op-eds from misled local officials and airport directors repeating these points, widely circulated by AOPA and allies. NBAA even refers to corporatisation as turning over taxing authority to this “private board” – ignoring the legal difference between charges for services and taxes paid to the government.”
Poole said that one plausible path forward is that once legislative time is available, Shuster calls for a vote on the House FAA bill, and enough moderate Democrats – lobbied by former Clinton officials and controllers’ union NATCA – join with most Republican members to pass it.
“If that occurs, fiscal conservatives in the Senate will likely seek to amend the Senate FAA bill to include the House bill’s ATC corporation section. That amendment might be tough to pass, given the rural concerns stirred up by AAAA’s efforts. Even if it fails, once both houses have passed their somewhat different FAA bills, the next stop is for the leadership in both houses to appoint a conference committee to iron out the differences and produce a final bill for both houses to vote on.”
Poole said that at that point, the role of the White House will be crucial. The majority party in each house gets to appoint a majority of the conferees, and if the White House is serious about ATC reform, it will lean on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to appoint pro-reform Republican conferees. It should help that McConnell’s wife is Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, who favors ATC corporatisation. And presumably House Republican leadership – Speaker Paul Ryan – remains committed to this change and will appoint pro-reform conferees.
“If ATC corporatisation does not pass in 2018, the near-term prospects appear somewhat less promising,” Poole said. “The leading congressional champion, Chairman Shuster, has announced his retirement from Congress as of the end of this year. Moreover, the Republicans may lose control of the House, as often happens in the first mid-term election in a new president’s term. The members of the ATC corporatisation coalition appreciate this and can be expected to fight hard to get the job done this year – via either the FAA reauthorisation bill or as part of the Trump infrastructure bill.”
Poole believes the infrastructure bill offers numerous opportunities for trade-offs to build bipartisan support: “If ATC corporatisation remains mostly a Republican priority, it could be used as a bargaining chip in exchange for something Democratic legislators want, such as an increase in the federal limit on passenger facility charges by airports.”