While both the House and Senate have been preparing long-term FAA reauthorization bills, one key difference between them is reportedly ATC privatization. As Sen. John Thune (R-SD) admitted on Tuesday, the president’s controversial plan to turn the nation’s ATC system over to a nonprofit entity doesn’t have enough support within the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Therefore, it will be absent from the Senate’s bill.
Of course, in the House, ATC privatization has arguably its biggest supporter: House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA), who unveiled his new plan on Wednesday. In addition to a variety of regulations intended to make commercial flight a better experience for passengers, the House’s FAA bill includes the ATC spin-off, as Shuster told reporters, “This is about saving the taxpayers’ money. Maintaining the status quo is unacceptable.”
In last year’s similar effort, Shuster proposed giving airlines four seats on the board of the nonprofit entity that would take over ATC operations. Trump’s plan would give airlines two seats, but Shuster’s new bill, according to Reuters, settles on three: one for major airlines, one for cargo carriers and one for regional airlines. As for the concerns over GA user fees, Shuster’s bill prohibits them. The House’s deal would fund the FAA for six years.
Still unknown, however, is whether or not Shuster will be able to drum up the bipartisan support he’ll need if and when the bill hits the floor.
Shuster has reportedly been “working to attract more democratic support” at a time when democrats are also pushing their own bill that would keep ATC under the watch of the FAA. But democrats aren’t Shuster’s only problem. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), chairman of the Appropriations transportation subcommittee, opposes ATC privatization, and earlier this month he described the potential “risk” it could create “if we were to hand decisions over to an unaccountable corporate board.”
“I agree that our current system like everything else is imperfect, but it does give a guaranteed voice to the public interest,” Diaz-Balart said. “But the corporation would have no such obligation when they create new routes, when they change the frequency of those routes. This goes to the health, the home values, the basic quality of life.”
As for someone with a strong tie to general aviation, Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-LA), a pilot who occasionally flies his Cirrus SR20 from Louisiana to Washington DC, wrote a letter in April asking the president to reconsider his stance on ATC. “Overhauling a model that has worked for generations threatens this accessibility,” Abraham explained, “and would have a negative impact on passengers, general aviation families, and businesses and airports across the country.”
Despite the unveiling of the bills, both of which are expected to have committee mark-ups completed next week, it is still believed by some that this issue will be dragged out at least through the end of the calendar year, with the FAA receiving another extension instead of a long-term solution.