WASHINGTON — A House panel moved closer Tuesday to approving legislation that would split off management of the nation’s skies from the Federal Aviation Administration and give that responsibility to an independent, non-profit company.
The Republican-led committee worked into the evening on legislation designed 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 legislation would establish a company with a 13-member board of directors to provide air traffic services.
About 35,000 workers, including 14,000 controllers and 6,000 technicians, would be affected by moving air traffic control operations out of the FAA. The agency would still be responsible for regulating aviation safety, including the work of the new company.
The union representing air traffic control workers endorsed Rep. Bill Shuster’s bill. The union said the legislation will protect the workforce and provide predictable funds for the aviation system.
“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.
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.
To secure support, the House bill would exempt such general aviation flights from the user fee established to fund the new company’s work. Still, many in the civil aviation industry are opposed. The Senate bill reauthorizing the FAA keeps 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 committee 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, 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.
To enhance the FAA’s efficiency, DeFazio said Democrats would prefer to exempt certain FAA funds from sequestration budget cuts or government shutdowns.
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.