Debate Begins on Pulling Air Traffic Control Out of Government

House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) is moving swiftly to advance legislation that would separate air traffic control services from the Federal Aviation Administration, despite opposition from Democrats and several high-profile Republicans.

The FAA legislation will become a regularly discussed topic in Congress over the next several weeks. FAA funding runs out on March 31, and both chambers must pass legislation to reauthorize it or extend its current funding by then. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) isn’t taking a position on Shuster’s bill yet, waiting to see how it plays out in committee, according to an aide.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.), who is writing the Senate version, has said he expects his committee to act on an FAA reauthorization bill after the House has completed its work. If it doesn’t happen by March 31, he told reporters, Congress will simply need to pass another extension.

In the House, Shuster has scheduled a Thursday committee markup of his reauthorization bill. Included in the broad-based legislation, H.R. 4441, is a controversial proposal that would establish a nonprofit corporation to take control the United States’ air traffic control services.

Supporters of the plan — which include labor unions and most major U.S. airlines (Delta is the exception) — argue that privatization would stabilize funding for air traffic controllers and allow the FAA to focus more on air safety. The United Kingdom and Canada operate wholly or partially private air traffic control systems.

“We will see more effective use of the airspace, more direct routes, increased capacity, shorter flight times, reduced delays and cancellations, and reduced pollution and noise,” Shuster said Wednesday at a hearing.

But opponents say the proposal would give too much power to major airlines, which would hold four of the 10 seats on the proposed air traffic control board.

“[The FAA] gets involved in some silly-ass things that has nothing to do with safety and that has to be changed,” former House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) said Wednesday at the meeting. But, he added, “Don’t just give it to the big airlines, because what will happen is the consumer will not be served correctly.”

Republican Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee, is also an opponent of privatizing air traffic control services.

“While FAA can and should improve and accelerate the development of modernized air traffic systems, we do not believe the solution is less oversight and less accountability,” Rogers wrote in a letter with Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) and David Price (D-N.C.).

Ranking member Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), another opponent, complained that committee members haven’t had enough time to review the bill, which was introduced on Feb. 3. Shuster hoped to win over DeFazio and introduce a bipartisan bill during discussions last summer, but he was unsuccessful.

“We’ve had the bill a week, we’re holding one hearing with four witnesses, and we’re marking the bill up tomorrow,” DeFazio said Wednesday. He described the measure as “the largest devolution of public assets to a private industry in the history of America.”

Shuster and other supporters argue that privatization is needed to help modernize air traffic control from its outdated radar-based system to satellite-based GPS system. That’s the whole point of the FAA’s NextGen program, which has been delayed over and over again. Shuster is convinced that freeing the FAA of day-to-day responsibility for air traffic control will help NextGen get off the ground.

Opponents, on the other hand, say separating the two would actually complicate implementation of NextGen. “We do not believe that creating a separate air entity, removed from congressional oversight, will advance efforts to modernize air traffic control,” Rogers and the other congressmen wrote.

There are also concerns that under the plan, private aircraft would face higher user fees because the air traffic control entity would be operated with significant representation of the major airlines. Shuster on Wednesday played down those concerns.

“There’s some notion out there that they’re going to raise the user fees so high that a fellow or woman who wants to fly a G5 or a G6 [private jet] is going to be forced to fly first class on an airline,” Shuster said. “I just can’t imagine that that’s going to happen.”

Besides the air traffic control plan, the rest of 273-page legislation contains many bipartisan provisions, including some aimed at easing the pain of air travel and reforming drone laws.

DeFazio told Morning Consult he has no idea how many Republicans will oppose the bill Thursday, but there will at least be a few. Young plans to vote against it if his concerns are not addressed.

“If this bill is not fixed, I am not going to support it, and it better be fixed,” Young said Wednesday, looking at Shuster.

Morning Consult