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House Panel Weighs Privatizing Air Traffic Control

A House panel on Tuesday weighed legislation that would split off management of the nation’s skies from the Federal Aviation Administration and give that responsibility to an independent, nonprofit company.

The idea is to remove air traffic control from the vagaries of the government budget process. Proponents say Washington dysfunction hampers the FAA’s efforts to update equipment designed to make flying quicker and safer. The FAA would maintain its role in issuing and enforcing regulations designed to enhance safety.

The union representing about 18,000 air traffic control workers and engineers supports Rep. Bill Shuster’s bill. The union said the legislation will protect the workforce and provide predictable funds for the aviation system.

President Donald Trump supports the effort, but aviation groups that often rely on smaller airports for business travel, recreation, pilot training and crop spraying oppose it. The effort also faces opposition in the Senate, where several key GOP senators and many Democrats oppose the plan.

“This bill is about American jobs and competitiveness. It gets Washington out of the way of aviation and innovation,” said Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

To secure support, the House bill would exempt general aviation flights from the new user fees established to fund the new company’s operations. Still, many in the civil aviation industry are opposed. The Senate bill reauthorizing the FAA maintains air traffic control operations within the agency’s bailiwick. A Senate panel will take up its reauthorization bill Thursday.

Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., parted ways with Republicans on the panel in voicing concern that a powerful minority could still control the new corporation’s board on a range of issues.

“It’s the corporatization of a monopoly where one part of the ecosystem can take over the rest,” Rokita said.

Canada, Great Britain, France and Germany are among the dozens of countries around the world that have commercialized their air traffic navigation systems while keeping the government in the role of safety regulator. Still, the sheer size of the U.S. system, with its more than 300 air traffic facilities and more than 210,000 aircraft, complicates the effort.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, the top Democrat on the panel, said a few years ago that he would have been willing to “roll the dice” on privatization because the FAA was doing so poorly in its procurement of critical new systems, but that track record has much improved.

“If we privatize air traffic control, we won’t create the world’s finest system. It will be inherited by the private corporation,” said DeFazio of Oregon.

The bill deals with more than creating a new entity to oversee air traffic control. It also would beef up some protections for the flying public. For example, the legislation prohibits airlines from involuntarily bumping passengers once they have already boarded a plane, a nod to the troubling images of the passenger who was violently dragged off a United Airlines flight out of Chicago in early April.

DeFazio said the bill is generally supported on a bipartisan basis, with the major exception being the issue of privatization.

DeFazio said Democrats would prefer to address the influence of congressional gridlock on the FAA through legislation that would exempt certain FAA funds from sequestration budget cuts or government shutdowns.

Proponents sought to emphasize that the transition would be gradual. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga., said, “I know that it is frightening to propose a change of this magnitude,” but he added that the people in charge of flight safety on the ground today would still be there if Shuster’s proposal passed.

“Those folks on the front lines tell me that this proposal doesn’t frighten them. This proposal encourages them,” Woodall said.


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