The House Transportation Committee on Tuesday approved legislation that would remove more than 30,000 air traffic controllers and aviation-modernization workers from the federal payroll, spinning them off into a private, nonprofit corporation.
The proposal comes with the endorsement of President Trump, who has said the Federal Aviation Administration “didn’t know what the hell they were doing” in spending $7 billion thus far to modernize the aviation system.
Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) on Tuesday called the measure “a good idea whose time has come.”
“It ends decades of wasteful spending on failed programs and broken promises,” he said.
With Congress facing a Sept. 30 deadline to approve FAA funding authorization, the privatization proposal is a big hurdle in an otherwise bipartisan agreement.
“Even in Congress, opposition is far-reaching,” said Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) the ranking Democrat of the aviation subcommittee. “Bipartisan appropriators have expressed concern about privatization, as have numerous Democratic and Republican senators. We could not be farther from a national consensus on privatizing the aviation system.”
Advocates of the split for more than a year have used Nav Canada, the private nonprofit corporation that manages Canadian airspace, as the example of what they propose. Shuster has led congressional delegations to visit Nav Canada, while critics have argued that comparing the world’s second-largest navigation system by traffic volume with the more complex and heavily trafficked U.S. system is absurd.
In fact, the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization is an entity separate from the regulatory side of the agency and could be shifted to a private, nonprofit entity over the next three years in a fashion that probably would go largely unnoticed by the flying public.
The Nav Canada debate has been a red herring for a pair of bigger issues that have motivated Shuster to act, and which may complicate passage of the bill if it clears the House and makes it to the Senate.
The principal issue is the FAA’s handling of a $36 billion modernization program known as NextGen. Often described as a “GPS-based system,” in fact it is a far more complicated system that would catapult U.S. aviation into the 21st century. But Congress has grown increasingly frustrated with the FAA’s progress amid regular critical reports from oversight agencies.
More significantly, perhaps, has been the reluctance of airlines to invest billions of dollars in equipping their planes with the necessary technology because many of them perceive the FAA as gripped by bureaucracy that might render their equipment obsolete by the time it gets several necessary systems on line.
It would cost airlines $200,000 per plane to add one critical piece of equipment, a total cost of more than $730 million. Thus far, Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) said, only 839 of the airlines’ 3,653 planes have the equipment.
“If we want to reduce delay, it’s not [air traffic control] that needs to reform, it’s the airlines themselves,” DeFazio said.
While the FAA appears to have righted itself, making headway on some programs and delivering its part of the bargain on others, it is too little, too late for many lawmakers.
The second big issue, and potential obstacle in the Senate, is to whom the board of directors of the new nonprofit entity with be beholden. Critics argue that it would come to be dominated by the airlines and fear that domination will come at the expense of those who operate small planes and corporate jets. More significantly, they worry that airline dominance will diminish service to smaller airports and those in remote, rural areas.
Shuster muscled a similar bill through his committee last year, but it got no attention on the House floor — in part because a chilly reception seemed likely if it made it to the Senate side. Now, with Trump’s support, it may gain greater momentum.
“There have been many concerns raised regarding recent proposals for ATC reform and the potential impact on small community air service,” Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said earlier this month. “I was glad to see that the principles announced by the president this week underscore the need to serve rural communities.”
The proposal has split the big air carriers, with Delta Air Lines breaking away from a lobbying group that represents the other four major airlines because it wants air traffic control and NextGen to remain in the hands of the FAA.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) backed Shuster’s plan last year, saying that the nonprofit corporation would ensure more stable funding than Congress could provide, while the 11,000-member Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS) union strongly opposed it.
But NATCA President Paul Rinaldi, in a letter to The Washington Post this month, said his union would “not take a position on any reform proposal until we have reviewed the specific legislative details. We will review any new bill to determine whether it satisfies our core principles.”
DeFazio made an unsuccessful attempt to amend the bill — co-sponsored by the committee’s Democratic members — that makes critical changes to the FAA while keeping the agency intact.
That bill addressed concerns about protecting the tax revenue collected from passenger tickets and fuel from congressional meddling, government shutdowns or the appropriations process. The bill would take out of the loop the Office of Management and Budget, which reviews and often slows the procurement process, thereby hindering modernization efforts.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) backs Shuster’s plan, saying the nonprofit corporation would ensure more stable funding than Congress could provide, while the 11,000-member Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS) union opposes it.
“We made sure that we clearly understood how this bill would protect the National Airspace System and allow it to continue to grow, as well as how it would protect the men and women who are the backbone of the system,” NATCA President Paul Rinaldi said in a statement. “This bill protects our workforce – including pay, benefits, retirement, and collective bargaining rights.”