The long pursued and much debated quest to spin off more than 30,000 Federal Aviation Administration workers charged with modernizing the aviation system ended Tuesday night when House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) threw in the towel.
Shuster twice pushed legislation through his committee to separate the multi-faceted $36-billion modernization program, known as NextGen, into a private, nonprofit corporation. But, in the face of bipartisan opposition in the Senate, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) opted not to bring it to a vote on the floor.
Shuster, in a statement, called his failed efforts “good government reforms, and necessary for the future efficiency, effectiveness, and safety of our entire Nation’s aviation system and its users.”
“We built strong support for this critical reform over the last two Congresses, and we had a golden opportunity to move beyond the status quo and accomplish positive, transformational change with this bill,” Shuster said. “Despite an unprecedented level of support for this legislation – from bipartisan lawmakers, industry, and conservative groups and labor groups alike – some of my own colleagues refused to support shrinking the federal government by 35,000 employees, cutting taxes, and stopping wasteful spending.”
With a cost expected to be $200,000 per plane, airlines have been reluctant to invest in the project because they doubt the timetable in which the FAA can deliver an incredibly complex network that has been best described as a system of systems rather than a single advance to modernization.
Both the inspector general’s office and the Government Accountability Office have criticized the FAA’s progress. Congress has been deeply frustrated with what it perceives as a lack of progress. The airlines need reassurance that when they make expensive upgrades, the system will deliver, even as there are projected to be 296 million more commercial air travelers by 2037 than there were last year.
The NexGen modernization will allow planes to safely fly closer to one another, save fuel and time, get immediate weather updates, and communicate more effectively with other airplanes and with air traffic controllers.
“Although our air traffic control reform provisions did not reach the obvious level of support needed to pass Congress, I intend to work with [Sen. John Thune] and move forward with a reauthorization bill to provide long-term stability for the FAA,” said Shuster, who plans to retire from office when his term expires.
Thune (R-S.D.) is chairman of the Senate Committee on Science, Commerce and Transportation.