Congress has temporarily renewed authorization for the Federal Aviation Administration while lawmakers consider whether to take responsibility for air traffic control from the government and place it under the direction of a nonprofit corporation.
The Senate passed the six-month extension by voice vote Monday. The House passed the measure a day earlier. The bill now goes to the White House for signature.
The temporary extension provides a window for congressional action on a larger aviation policy bill. Congress typically renews the FAA’s authorization every four to six years, using the bills as an opportunity to address a wide range of aviation issues. The most recent authorization is due to expire Wednesday.
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman, has said he intends to introduce a “transformational” reauthorization bill that will spin off air traffic control, thus removing it from the uncertainties of the congressional budgeting process that have hobbled the FAA’s air traffic modernization effort.
There were 23 temporary extensions of FAA’s authority before the last reauthorization bill was passed in 2012. The agency was also shut down for two weeks in 2011 in a squabble between the House and the Senate over subsidized air service for rural communities. In 2013, governmentwide spending cuts imposed by Congress led to a 10 percent furlough of controllers, resulting in widespread air traffic delays.
Many other countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany, use nonprofit corporations, private companies or quasi-public agencies to provide air traffic-control services, while the government provides safety oversight. The model lawmakers are most likely to follow is NAV Canada, a private corporation without shareholders that operates much like a customer cooperative and is funded by fees paid by airlines and other aviation system users.
The concept of spinning off air traffic control has had the support of the airline industry and many government officials and aviation insiders since the 1990s. But opposition from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, as well as private aircraft operators, prevented significant action. More recently, NATCA’s president, Paul Rinaldi, has said he is willing to at least consider a proposal.
Shuster had intended to introduce the FAA bill in July but abruptly changed his mind. Some Democrats on the committee have questioned the necessity of spinning off air traffic control, saying safety has never been greater and the system functions well. They note that the U.S. aviation system is about 10 times the size of the Canadian system and far more complex.