President Trump’s controversial proposal to separate air traffic control from the federal government received an icy reception from a key Senate panel on Wednesday, underscoring the bumpy road ahead for the administration in selling the idea on Capitol Hill.
Rural Republicans and Democrats joined together during a Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing in panning Trump’s plan to hand over the country’s air navigation system to a non-profit corporation.
Other lawmakers who have been lukewarm to the approach, like Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.), did not seem any more convinced about the proposal despite hearing from Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on the thorny issue.
Thune acknowledged there wasn’t consensus on the issue and urged the administration to work to build more consensus among stakeholders. But he warned, “We won’t wait forever.”
The debate comes as the panel is crafting a reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), whose legal authority expires at the end of September. Committee leaders said they hope to unveil a long-term reauthorization in the coming weeks.
“This is a tough sell in states like my state of Mississippi, where small airports are very concerned about where this will leave them, and I think we’re going to see this on both sides of the aisle,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). “The sale needs to be made, and needs to made convincingly.”
The White House dispatched Chao to Capitol Hill this week in an effort to convince skeptical lawmakers to get on board with Trump’s air traffic control proposal.
The plan would transfer the FAA’s air traffic control operations to a nongovernmental organization at “no cost”, though the FAA would still maintain safety oversight.
The new entity would be governed by a 13-member board appointed by users of the system and would be able to raise money through user fees. It could also borrow funds and access capital from the private sector.
Chao made a case for the spinoff proposal on Wednesday, saying it would modernize outdated air traffic control technology, reduce flight delays and congestion, and remove the FAA’s functional operations from the financial and political uncertainty of Congress.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle pressed Chao on whether rural airports and general aviation users would be adequately protected and represented under the new model, which they said could give outsize power to the commercial airline industry.
Chao pushed back, saying that the corporation’s board would only give two seats to airlines under the proposal backed by Trump. A similar proposal that stalled in the House last year would have given airlines four seats at the table.
“The rest are to airports, to labor, to advocates, to other stakeholders, so this is not control by the airlines. I think that’s very important,” Chao said.
Senators also raised concern about potentially higher airfares and user fees under the spinoff plan, and worried about whether contract tower programs in rural areas would be able to continue to operate without interruption.
Chao, who repeatedly assured lawmakers that the administration is committed to protecting rural interests, argued that an outside agency would better modernize air traffic control operations than the government and thus improve the overall system for everyone.
But not every lawmaker seemed convinced.
“I would remain skeptical in you indicating rural American contract towers would be more secure,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) “I would put my eggs in the basket of Congress rather than a 13-member private board making decisions nationwide.”
The chief criticism from Democrats is that the spinoff plan would remove operations from congressional oversight, leaving them with almost no way to hold operations accountable, and would hand over government assets to a corporation for free.
Appropriators and tax-writers are also concerned about granting a nongovernmental organization or nonprofit the power to collect fees.
“We currently have the safest air traffic control system in the world. Why risk that by handing the whole thing over to an untested, unproven entity?” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member on the panel. “And why give away billions of dollars in government assets to an entity that will be governed in large part by the airlines?”
Trump’s air traffic control plan will likely have better luck in the House, where Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) has been a chief proponent of the idea. He is planning a long-term FAA bill with language to break away air control traffic control operations from the government.
But Moran pointed out that efforts to advance a long-term FAA bill last year failed because of the House committee’s attempt to include spinoff language, which he warned could happen again.
The senator asked whether the administration would help Congress pass a long-term reauthorization of the FAA even if it doesn’t include the spinoff plan, in case the “votes aren’t there.”
“I wish I could answer, but as you all know, I cannot without consultation [with the president],” Chao said.