A Republican proposal to separate the nation’s air traffic control system from the Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t fly with Rep. Mike Pompeo.
The Kansas Republican is a leading critic of the proposal, unveiled this week by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, to remove control of the nation’s airspace from the FAA and give it to a newly created independent entity.
Its supporters say the change would make air traffic control more efficient and allow it to be managed the same way other countries do, including Canada. They say it would help update the system, which relies on old radar technology. And, they say, it would protect the nation’s airspace from the political dysfunction that has gripped Capitol Hill in recent years.
But Pompeo has said that approach would give too much control over the skies to the biggest stakeholders in aviation at the expense of smaller ones, including general aviation.
“This bill picks winners and losers in America’s airspace and gives special interests and commercial airlines disproportionate control over our air traffic control system,” he said in a statement Wednesday.
Pompeo represents Wichita, which bills itself as the “air capital” because it is a hub for general aviation manufacturing.
“In its current form,” Pompeo said, “this bill would be detrimental to American general aviation, restrict access to small and rural airports and harm our air transportation network as a whole.”
The six-year bill, called the Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization Act, would maintain the FAA’s safety oversight role.
It would establish a federally chartered air traffic control corporation governed by the aviation system’s users and paid for by new user fees on flights, whether they’re large commercial jets or small private planes.
Tom Reich, an aviation consultant in Dulles, Va., said that pricing model could be detrimental to general aviation, which accounts for more than half the traffic in U.S. airspace but contributes a fraction of the fees.
“If that fee is $100 for a (Boeing) 747, no big deal,” he said. “But if you’re a Cessna 172, it could make you hesitate to even fly.”
The FAA’s authorization expires at the end of March, and the House of Representatives proposal fulfills a long-held desire by many in the aviation sector to privatize air traffic control, although some of the bill’s supporters don’t call it that.
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the chairman of the transportation committee, said his proposal would help complete a transition from World War II-era radar to a satellite-based air system, a multibillion-dollar effort called NextGen.
“Our system is incredibly inefficient,” Shuster said in a statement, “and it will only get worse as passenger levels grow and as the FAA falls further behind in modernizing the system.”
Although Pompeo isn’t a member of the transportation committee, he isn’t alone in his opposition to Shuster’s bill. The ranking Democrat on that panel, Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, also opposes it. So do several key Republicans, aviation trade groups and trade unions, and one major airline.
Delta CEO Richard Anderson wrote Shuster earlier this week that the airline opposes privatization “or any other attempt to remove air traffic control” from the FAA.
“It is unnecessary and unwise,” he said.
Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, wrote House leaders earlier this week that he would oppose any legislation that would diminish lawmakers’ ability to oversee and appropriate funds for air traffic control. Rogers represents a rural eastern Kentucky district where most air service is noncommercial.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., a member of the Senate commerce committee, which will eventually have a say on the House proposal, said this week that the protection of general aviation was his “top priority.”
“The legislation will have long-term implications for aviation manufacturing as well as the small airports and rural communities general aviation serves,” he said in a statement.
Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association, said small towns and communities that depended on general aviation for economic reasons had a lot to lose if Congress got it wrong.
“We’re really concerned about the idea of eliminating government oversight of the air traffic control system,” he said. “Airspace needs to be run for the public’s benefit.”
In a recent interview, Pompeo said he was confident that lawmakers would “get to the right place” on air traffic control. But he’s not convinced that Shuster’s proposal is it.
“I’m open to lots of different ideas,” he said. “I haven’t heard any that made me believe we can do better than the FAA.”