A revived effort to separate air traffic control from the federal government has so far struggled to win over critics, despite a White House endorsement and a series of legislative changes designed to gain new supporters.
Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, unveiled long-term legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Wednesday that includes a contentious plan to transfer the country’s air navigation system to a nonprofit corporation.
Under the model, the FAA would maintain safety oversight while a new entity would be in charge of air traffic control operations. The nonprofit organization would be governed by a board of directors and have the power to impose user fees.
A similar proposal stalled on the House floor last year amid opposition from GOP tax-writers, appropriators and general aviation users including small private planes and corporate jets, forcing lawmakers to enact a short-term patch to reauthorize the FAA.
But Shuster said he made strategic changes to the bill this year in an effort to assuage some of skeptics’ concerns and ticked off a list of new supporters, including President Trump and Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.).
Graves, a pilot, was one of the only Republican no votes on the spinoff proposal last year and worked to strike a compromise with Shuster this year.
“We’ve made significant changes to the board. The board is more transparent than it was,” Shuster told reporters. “We’ve brought on Graves, who’s the voice of [general aviation] in Congress.”
Under the new version, all general aviation users would be exempt from any user fees imposed by the new entity and the board makeup would be more diverse than a previous proposal.
The 13-member board would include three seats represented by the airlines – one for passenger, cargo and regional carriers – while general and business aviation would each get one seat.
The rest of the board would be represented by government, airports, air traffic controllers, commercial pilots and two more members picked by the group.
Last year’s FAA bill would have given the airlines four seats, and did not break them down into different categories of air carriers.
“If the governance is right, I believe this will be a success,” Shuster said. “We’ve gone to great lengths to make sure to listen to everybody and make sure we have a board that’s balanced, so not any one group can claim they dominate it.”
Other than Graves, few opponents have yet flipped their position, however, casting uncertainty on the fate of the proposal in Congress.
A group of general aviation associations banded together on Wednesday to express their opposition to the new FAA bill, though they commended Shuster’s effort to make some changes in their favor.
General aviation users have worried about whether they would be adequately represented under the model or if they would lose access to the national airspace.
“We have concluded that these reforms, while well intentioned, will produce uncertainty and unintended consequences without achieving the desired outcomes,” the coalition said in a statement. “Any structural and governance reforms that require protections for an important sector of users is fundamentally flawed.”
Appropriators in Congress don’t like the idea of giving up congressional oversight of air traffic control operations, because it would leave them no way to hold the system accountable if things go wrong.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, expressed the same concerns about the spinoff plan on Wednesday.
“I have a lot of different concerns. The No. 1 issue is governance,” Diaz-Balart told The Hill. “This isn’t privatization, this is corporatization of a monopoly. That’s a major problem I have.”
There has also been a lack of support for the idea in the Senate, especially among rural senators concerned about small airports, so the upper chamber’s long-term proposal to reauthorize the FAA will not contain the spinoff proposal.
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) reiterated his opposition to the plan on Wednesday.
“I remain adamantly opposed to privatization,” Moran told reporters. “Those changes don’t change anything for me, and I don’t think they change anything for my concerns about airspace for most of America.”