THE HOUSE of Representatives passed a bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration for another five years last Friday — alas. Our lament has nothing to do with what’s in the bill, which will keep this vital and generally effective agency funded on a stable basis, a welcome improvement over the series of temporary extensions enacted in recent years. And we’re duly impressed with the hefty 393-to-13 bipartisan vote in favor. The depressing thing about the bill is what’s not in it: a plan for fundamental reform of the air traffic control system.
For years, Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman, has been working with fellow lawmakers and aviation interest groups on a proposal to shift air traffic control from the FAA to a government-owned air traffic control corporation supported by user fees and governed by stakeholders. The idea has a bipartisan pedigree going back to Democratic Vice President Al Gore’s 1993 government-reinvention project, the National Performance Review, and other advanced industrial countries such as Canada and Germany have adopted a version of the idea. The main advantage of a separate, self-governing nonprofit entity would be to end the constant political bickering in Congress over the FAA’s budget, enabling much-needed technological modernization to proceed regardless of government shutdown worries and other hassles. Another plus would be to let the FAA focus exclusively on its safety regulation mission.
The stars seemed to be aligning in favor of FAA modernization when President Trump spoke out in favor of the plan on June 5, 2017. Surrounded by a wide coalition of supporters, including representatives of major airlines and the air traffic controllers union, Mr. Trump said “we are proposing to take American air travel into the future — finally.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called it “a tired Republican plan” that “would hand control of one of our nation’s most important public assets to special interests and the big airlines.” Not really: In addition to having bipartisan roots, Mr. Shuster’s plan was most ferociously opposed by the quintessential narrow special interest: the corporate-jet and private-plane lobbies, which feared having to pay higher fees for less access to airspace. That would indeed have cleared more room in the skies and airports for airlines, which is not so terrible when you consider that is how the vast majority of ordinary folks travel.
Yet the narrow-interest lobbies retained enough clout in the House, even among Republicans, to force Mr. Shuster suddenly to drop his efforts and to settle for a five-year reauthorization of the existing system. These pro-status quo lobbies prevailed once again — amid signs that Mr. Trump’s support for the idea might be flagging. On Jan. 11, he still seemed to support it, telling the Wall Street Journal “air-traffic control doesn’t work,” but not to worry because “I’m good at that stuff — we’ll fix it.” A month later, however, Mr. Trump left the proposal out of his infrastructure initiative. A White House official told us “other issues are going to take greater precedence,” given the difficulty of getting votes for the reform. Mr. Trump apparently wasn’t willing to spend political capital on that tough fight. Score one for the swamp.