Rep Bill Shuster, R-9th District, formally proposed a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s air-traffic control system Wednesday, in a move that could affect both major national airlines and small local airports like those in central Pennsylvania.
Shuster’s plan, described in a speech to the Aero Club of Washington and set to be detailed in legislation later this month, would transfer the country’s air-traffic control system to a private, not-for-profit corporation controlled by a board of aviation representatives.
While many officials and industry groups – including unions, airlines and the White House – expressed noncommittal or tentative support Wednesday, others have expressed concerns about specific ideas associated with Shuster’s plan. In the past, some have said any plan that pulls air-traffic control out of congressional oversight while giving industry officials control over fees could harm small airports and rural operators.
“This is not a revolutionary concept. Presidents Bush and Clinton attempted to do this,” Shuster said in his speech. “In the last 20 years, 50 countries around the world have successfully separated out their (air-traffic control) service.”
Altoona-Blair County Airport Authority Chairman Tom Hite said an air-traffic overhaul wouldn’t directly impact the local airport, which doesn’t have a control tower, but he said surrounding airports could see an immediate effect. The heavily trafficked University Park Airport in Centre County completed a control tower in 2010.
While the plan’s effects on small, local airports isn’t yet totally clear, concerns over the “user fees” that would fund Shuster’s proposed system are nothing new.
Shuster said the new private company would implement a “stable, self-sustaining and fair user fee” to keep its operations funded and free of government reliance. A prior proposal by President Barack Obama’s administration to implement per-flight fees, however, drew opposition from groups like the Alliance for Aviation Across America, which represents local and rural airports.
At the time, the group said the fee plan “would devastate the businesses, farms, charitable groups around the nation that depend on these aircraft and airports, causing a ripple effect throughout the communities that depend on them.”
The corporation set to be established under Shuster’s plan wouldn’t necessarily establish the same fee, and the Alliance for Aviation Across America hasn’t made a final statement on the proposal. But in a joint letter sent to representatives on June 5, the group – along with the National Farmers Union, the League of Rural Voters and others – urged Congress to maintain oversight over the country’s air-traffic system.
“We are particularly concerned about proposals to turn over authority over our air transportation system to any type of private board or entity, which would have the authority over funding mechanisms and taxes,” the groups’ representatives wrote. “General aviation and our national network of airports are a vital part of our national infrastructure, our economy and a lifeline to small towns and rural communities around our nation.”
Shuster has touted his plan as a means to keep America’s air-traffic system safe from government shutdowns and Washington budget struggles. A private entity could be guaranteed funding no matter what Congress does, he said.
In addition, Shuster said a new corporation would be better suited to upgrade air-traffic technology, a scheme that has stalled for years under government authority.
The nationwide air-traffic system could ultimately be upgraded from outdated, radar-based technology to satellite-based GPS to make takeoffs and landings quicker and more efficient, privatization supporters have said.
Shuster’s plan would first have to make its way through Congress, with a final bill and debate likely this summer, he told national media outlets Monday.
“We will stop wasting billions more on failed modernization efforts that have been over-promised and over-budget. Detached from the inefficient federal procurement system, modernization will be within reach,” he said in his speech. “It will no longer be the carrot always dangling from the stick in front of us.”