The White House bid to privatize the nation’s air-traffic control system is facing deep skepticism, both from a divided industry and on Capitol Hill, where Democrats are widely opposed to the plan and Republicans are concerned about its impact on airports in less populous areas.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao tried to rev up support Wednesday by offering assurances that rural communities won’t be shortchanged, and that airport towers at small airports operated by contractors will be protected from cutbacks under the proposed system. “I’m very concerned about access for rural America,” she told the Senate Commerce Committee, but said those areas are “most hurt by the status quo.”
Reflecting the extent of opposition in the Senate, GOP Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi said “this is a tough sell” for rural lawmakers. Sen Bill Nelson of Florida, the panel’s top Democrat, said reviving the debate over traffic control privatization “distracts from legitimate matters that must be addressed,” including additional consumer protections for passengers.
But passage of an air-traffic control revamp would require a dramatic pullback by political forces arrayed against it, according to lawmakers, congressional staffers and industry officials.
The proposal’s prospects are further clouded by Congress’s present focus on health-care reform—and lawmakers’ uncertainty about why President Donald Trump opted to put air-traffic control atop his infrastructure agenda.
“I don’t know what the theory was in this becoming such a significant component of the infrastructure plan,” Sen. Jerry Moran (R., Kansas) said. A member of the Commerce Committee, which oversees the Federal Aviation Administration, Mr. Moran said that except for the largest urban areas, stripping traffic control from the FAA would “significantly diminish the opportunity for air service to most communities across the country.”
Many Republican lawmakers dismissed the privatization issue as premature, since there isn’t any specific White House plan on the table. Cory Gardner (R., Colo.), another member of the Commerce Committee, said “we’ve got a long ways to go in this process” before he can take a position.
Similar legislation was approved on a partisan vote by the House Transportation Committee last year, though it died before reaching the House floor and was never seriously considered by the Senate. Sen. John Thune, the South Dakota Republican who chairs the Commerce Committee, intends again this year to move an FAA reauthorization bill without an air-traffic revamp, according to one person familiar with the details.
Unlike in 2016, this year there is an administration putting its political capital behind the idea. Proponents argue that shifting traffic-control responsibilities to a private, nonprofit corporation run by a board representing a broad variety of stakeholders would lead to faster and more efficient modernization. The proposed entity would be funded by user fees and could raise capital in the bond market—rather than relying on the political vagaries of Capitol Hill.
Rising impatience with the FAA’s uncertain finances and the slow, troubled modernization has prompted most major U.S. carriers and the Business Roundtable, a group of chief executives, to support the White House proposal. Also on board are several unions representing airline pilots and a traveler-advocacy group. The union representing some 10,500 controllers, stung by a staffing crisis due in part to erratic FAA appropriations, said it shares the administration’s commitment to modernization and will review the legislation to see whether it protects its members.
By contrast, groups representing operators of business aircraft, along with associations representing private pilots and manufacturers of small planes, have come out strongly against the concept, concerned that the plan would give commercial airlines too much power, unduly raise user fees and isolate small and rural communities, whose airports could get less funding for improvements under a private system.
Lawmakers from the left have signaled an eagerness to work with President Trump on a broad, bipartisan infrastructure bill. The White House’s opening gambit, however, was slammed Tuesday by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), who said it would raise costs for travelers.
A day earlier, Marc Short, the White House director of legislative affairs, told reporters that the administration wants to craft an infrastructure plan by year-end. Congress may also need to pass a tax-reform bill to fund the infrastructure projects, but progress is stalled because lawmakers first want to overhaul the nation’s health system.
“Not a single major player has shifted position on the air-traffic-control debate since last year,” according to the person familiar with the legislative details. Without industry consensus, this person added, it is unlikely the Senate will be able to hammer out a compromise privatization measure by the September deadline for renewing the FAA’s authority.
Responding to bipartisan criticism of privatization, Secretary Chao opened the door to cooperating with lawmakers over fees, governance structure and other details of the proposal. She said that over the past nearly three decades, traffic control modernization has lagged due to outdated procurement practices. Since serving as the department’s No. 2 appointed official in the late 1980s, she told lawmakers, she is now “hearing the same arguments, the same description of the problem.”
But a number of committee members stressed that enhancing consumer protections for passengers should be a higher priority for the Transportation Department. Democratic Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts said he anticipates extended congressional debate over further passenger safeguards, including proposals to limit baggage fees, cancellation fees and other airline charges to “what is fair, what is reasonable (and) what is proportionate.”
Hours after Secretary Chao’s appearance, House Democrats released an alternative bill calling for “targeted reforms” at the FAA intended to provide stable funding, personnel reforms and a streamlined acquisition process for air-traffic modernization. Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the top Democrat on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said the legislation offers “real, achievable modernization” options, instead of GOP proposal that he contends will end up “jeopardizing the safety and security of our aviation system.”
Rep. DeFazio and other Democrats proposed similar changes last year, but they were opposed by Republicans, who control both chambers of Congress.
—Susan Carey contributed to this article.