Several lawmakers questioned Tuesday whether to move air-traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration to a private corporation, after recent airline debacles.
The comments came at a House Transportation Committee hearing about customer service, after United Airlines dragged a passenger off a flight April 9 to make room for a crew member.
Lawmakers also argued that occasional computer problems at multiple airlines force the cancellation of thousands of flights, for lack of technological investment by airlines.
“I think the airline industry needs to focus on getting its own house in order, instead of extending its reach to control our skies,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the top Democrat on the panel.
The committee approved a bill last year to privatize air-traffic control as a way to provide more stable funding than FAA, which has unpredictable annual appropriations from Congress.
But neither the full House nor the Senate debated the measure. Congress expects a full debate this year because FAA policy legislation must be renewed by Sept. 30.
Airlines are strong advocates for the change to modernize equipment and routes for faster, more efficient flights allowed by more precise tracking. A private group could sell bonds to modernize equipment, which airlines say would allow an upgrade from ground-based radar to satellite-based GPS technology more quickly.
President Trump has supported the general idea as part of his budget blueprint.
But skeptics have questioned giving airlines a larger voice in how flights are guided, through seats on the private board. Groups representing business jets and general-aviation pilots worry that they will shoulder a bigger share of costs of the new system.
Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said the change would hand billions of dollars’ worth of federal equipment and property over to the private company while leaving travelers in the lurch. She questioned how customers could keep an eye on routing, scheduling and investments in technology under a private company.
“What guarantee does the customer have that you’ll do any better job at that than you’re doing now with just getting them on the plane or dragging them off?” Titus asked.
United President Scott Kirby acknowledged airlines sometimes have bad incidents, such as dragging a passenger off a flight April 9. But modernizing the system would help all customers by making the system more efficient.
“The worst thing we do to our customers is the long delays and cancellations,” Kirby said. “We want to fix that.”
Flying straighter routes than the current zig-zag paths and smoother landing descents than the current stair-step routes would help airlines burn less fuel and save time, Kirby said.
“What’s better for our customers is better for the whole air traffic system,” he said. “It would lead to dramatic improvement, we believe, over time for customers who would be able to fly faster and get to their destination faster.”
Rep. Jason Lewis, R-Minn., said he was stuck at Washington National airport for 30 hours a few weeks ago because of flight delays and cancellations that grew out of bad weather. But with any hiccup in flights that are nearly full rippling across the entire country, Lewis asked how privatizing controllers would help.
Kirby said privatization wouldn’t help weather-related problems, but would ease other disruptions from the crowded flight schedule.
“It’s an incredibly outdated system, as you may well guess,” United CEO Oscar Munoz said. “We think it would add a lot of improvement.”