As Senate Republicans voiced skepticism Wednesday with a Trump administration plan to spin more than 30,000 Federal Aviation Administration workers into a nonprofit corporation, House Democrats announced a counterproposal that would preserve the FAA.
There are bipartisan worries in both chambers that the plan to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system and its efforts to modernize air travel will be put in the hands of a board that would prioritize airline service to major cities over the needs of smaller municipalities and rural areas.
“There have been many concerns raised regarding recent proposals for ATC reform and the potential impact on small community air service,” said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.). “I was glad to see that the principles announced by the president this week underscore the need to serve rural communities.”
Five rural states — including Thune’s — with a land mass of more than 1 million square miles have one-quarter of the population of greater Los Angeles.
The White House dispatched Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to answer questions before Thune’s committee on Wednesday, and she is scheduled to appear before the House Transportation Committee on Thursday.
“We’re very much aware that the members of this committee come primarily from rural states, so this is an issue that we are very cognizant of,” Chao said. “I am very concerned about the rural areas.”
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) questioned whether the cost of tickets would increase, as he said they did when Canada and Britain privatized their systems.
“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,” he said, “and I think you’re going to see this on both sides of the aisle.”
Chao denied that the board of the private corporation would fall into the hands of the airlines.
“The [board] will comprise of 13 members, and only two seats are available [for] airlines,” she told the committee. “The rest are going to be filled by airports, labor representatives — general aviation will have at least two. It will be the whole stakeholder group, but their responsibility will be not to look after their parochial interests.”
The House bill, introduced by Reps. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) and co-sponsored by all of the committee’s Democrats, would seem to have little chance on a committee where Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) is the leading proponent of the privatization plan and where Republicans hold a 34-to-27 majority.
Shuster created the prototype for the White House plan in legislation he crafted last year and pushed through his committee, only to see it falter in the House and stir bipartisan opposition in the Senate. The question both in his committee and the larger House and Senate is whether the alternative bill can gain traction with rural lawmakers who say that a congressionally mandated program is the only reason that commercial airlines serve many smaller airports.
“This has an actual chance of passing,” DeFazio said. “I don’t think [Shuster’s] bill has a chance of becoming law.”
The DeFazio-Larsen bill makes critical changes to the FAA while keeping the agency intact.
One of the two major unions that would be transferred to the corporation, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, supported the Shuster bill last year because it would provide a steady and consistent funding stream not subject to the whims of Congress.
The DeFazio-Larsen bill addresses that concern by protecting the tax revenue collected from passenger tickets and fuel from congressional meddling, government shutdowns or the appropriations process.
Their bill also would address the procurement concerns that Chao told the Senate had hindered modernization efforts. She said that even with relaxed procurement procedures Congress granted for its modernization efforts, the FAA moved too slowly.
DeFazio said the Office of Management and Budget, which reviews and often slows the procurement process, hindered modernization efforts. His bill would take the OMB out of the loop.
“The buck stops with the FAA administrator,” DeFazio said. “The FAA administrator is given full authority to implement procurement reforms outside of the normal procurement system.”
Shuster responded to Wednesday’s announcement by agreeing with DeFazio “that the FAA is fundamentally broken and that federal bureaucracy and Congress” are to blame.
“However, we disagree on how to fix the problem” Shuster said.
He said the DeFazio-Larsen proposal “rehashes years and years of ineffective congressional reforms aimed at allowing the FAA to act like a business and modernize the air traffic control system.”