A House panel voted Tuesday to move air-traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration to a non-profit corporation, a step the contentious proposal achieved last year, but that is now also supported by President Trump.
Rep. Bill Shuster’s goal is to modernize equipment and training for controllers faster than under FAA, while providing more stable funding for the system protected from congressional bickering. The measure is a top priority for airlines and has been promoted in Trump’s budget and infrastructure plans.
“It ends decades of wasteful spending on failed programs and broken promises,” Shuster said. “It gets Washington out of the way of innovation in aviation.”
The proposal approved on a 32-25 vote, which followed a similar proposal last year by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, must still be considered by the full House and Senate, where opposition is more pronounced. A companion bill in the Senate governing the FAA doesn’t include privatizing air-traffic control.
In both chambers, the proposal faces opposition from lawmakers who decide where to spend money and who fear a loss of congressional oversight. Rural lawmakers also worry that smaller airports and general-aviation, such as private pilots and business jets, will suffer under a corporation.
The top Democrat on the panel, Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, said FAA upgrades have already provided $2.7 billion in benefits and are projected to provide $110 billion in the next decade. FAA has built a nationwide system to better track planes between airports. And controllers communicate with pilots by text from 55 towers nationwide.
“The FAA has delivered,” DeFazio said. “If you privatize air traffic control, you won’t create the world’s finest system, it will be inherited by the private corporation.”
Airlines are pushing hard for the proposal because more precise guidance of flights is expected to allow more planes in the sky, while routes are shorter and more efficient, to save fuel and reduce emissions.
Watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office and the Transportation Department’s inspector general’s office have criticized FAA progress on modernization for years. FAA has spent $7 billion on the project called NextGen with little to show for it, Shuster said.
The corporation would be governed by a 13-member board, including a chief executive officer, two members appointed by the secretary of transportation, one for passenger airlines, one for cargo airlines, one for regional airlines, one for general-aviation, one for business jets, one for controllers, one for airports, one for commercial pilots and two at-large seats chosen by the rest of the board.
Critics feared that airlines would dominate the corporation’s board and shouldn’t be trusted.
“I think there is no industry more reviled in this nation — basically the telephone companies of the 21st Century — than the passenger airline industry,” said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.
But Shuster said the board was balanced among industry interests, and that each director would ultimately work in the interest of travelers. FAA would continue to regulate safety issues, under the new regime, he said.
“Nobody will dominate that board,” Shuster said. “It’s simply not true that the airlines will control this board or the FAA for that matter.”
General-aviation advocates fear that the corporation will favor airlines at busy airports and will charge higher fees than the government. Groups including the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, the National Air Transportation Association and the National Business Aviation Association issued a joint statement opposing the effort.
Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., who is a general-aviation pilot, said the government shouldn’t give control over the airspace to industry stakeholders any more than a highway should be given to truckers.
“The concept is fundamentally flawed,” Rokita said.
Shuster, who represents a rural district, said general-aviation wouldn’t pay fees to the corporation and would continue paying their current fuel taxes to the government to pay for other facets of FAA. Details over taxation must still be decided by the Ways and Means Committee.
Critics have also argued that the government shouldn’t give away FAA equipment and property worth billions of dollars without charging the corporation for it. But Shuster said taxpayers have already paid for the equipment, so it would be unfair to charge travelers a second time for it through corporation fees.
The panel rejected an amendment from Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., to require the corporation to pay for an estimated $13.7 billion in FAA assets. The vote was 24 in favor and 34 opposed.
Other provisions in the House FAA bill would:
♦increase the Airport Improvement Program for construction grants from $3.35 billion to $3.52 billion, with 2% growth in future years. The panel approved the proposal from Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., by voice vote.
♦prohibit airlines from bumping passengers who are already seated on planes.
♦require more regulations for drones, to hasten deliveries and other commercial flights.
♦allow airlines to advertise fares without taxes, which are now required by regulation.