Legislation was officially introduced Wednesday that would put the responsibility of the nation’s air traffic control system in the hands of a nonprofit organization instead of the Federal Aviation Administration.
The bill is part of an attempt to overhaul the oversight that the FAA currently has with regard to the aviation system. According to The Associated Press, the FAA would lose day-to-day responsibility of air traffic and switch from its current radar-based system to one that uses satellite technology. Within three years, control of all air traffic operations, facilities and nearly 40,000 workers would be transferred to the new corporation, according to the bill.
The legislation is part of the FAA’s reauthorization by Congress, which was last approved in 2012. Even before the specific legislation was proposed, some opponents raised concerns that large commercial airlines might have undue influence over a privatized ATC system to the disadvantage of general aviation.
U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., said he will carefully review any legislation that aims to privatize air traffic controllers to examine how it would affect workers, travelers and airports in West Virginia.
“I have serious concerns about privatizing this important workforce,” Jenkins said. “Air transportation in West Virginia is critical, and we must ensure the safety of our travelers.”
The bill also prohibits cellphone calls by in-flight passengers and would require airlines to refund fees when checked bags arrive more than 24 hours late. The bill’s chief sponsor is U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., who said the transformational solution is needed because modernization of the air traffic system is taking too long, according to The Associated Press.
Since the nonprofit would require a new tax structure, the decision about fees and taxes will be determined by the House Ways and Means Committee. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the senior Democrat on the committee, told AP that Democrats strongly oppose the privatization plan, but agree with most of the bill.
“This privatization proposal gives a private corporation the power to tax the American public to pay for safe operations, and it hands over a public asset worth billions of dollars to a private corporation for free,” DeFazio said, adding the corporation would effectively become a monopoly that picks winners and losers and decides routes, schedules and slots based on profit margins.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union representing air traffic controllers, released a statement in support of Shuster’s bill.
“After extremely careful review, consideration and deliberation, we have reached a decision: NATCA supports this bill,” union representatives said in a press release. “We applaud the very hard work that the committee has done to think outside the box and come up with a comprehensive bill that addresses the concerns we have shared with them.”
During a conference call with The Herald-Dispatch editorial board, Jerry Brienza, general manager of Huntington Tri-State Airport and president of the West Virginia Airport Managers Association, said he’s supportive of privatization of government services in general, but not in this case.
“The FAA has been the safest system in the world for decades and here we are looking to change it,” he said. “The FAA is the only government system besides the military that has actually functioned properly and exceeds expectations.”
Washington, D.C.-based political newspaper The Hill published a blog on its website co-written by five mayors, including John Manchester, mayor of Lewisburg, West Virginia.
“Some in Congress are proposing some very extensive changes to our air transportation system that will affect businesses, consumers, communities and the American people as a whole,” the mayors wrote. “Congress and the FAA help to ensure our nation’s air transportation system and air traffic control remains a public benefit that serves communities of all sizes in our country.”
Nelson Whitt, co-owner of Attitude Aviation, a fixed-base general aviation operator with locations at Huntington Tri-State Airport and the Lawrence County Airpark in Chesapeake, Ohio, said he has mixed feelings about the proposal because there are roughly 7,000 aircraft in U.S skies at any given moment and the safety of those pilots and passengers is crucial.
“I think the controllers should have a say-so (about the proposal to privatize),” he said. “If not, I’m afraid they won’t be as efficient as they are now. The decision needs to me made using the opinions of the people who do the work; they should decide. I don’t know why they’re trying to do something the controllers don’t want.”
Whitt said air traffic controllers are well-trained and the ones with whom he deals regularly are some of the best he has encountered.
“I’m afraid to see what happens if they start messing with it,” he said. “My fear is that it will change for the worse.”