The U.S. House and Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee yesterday approved a comprehensive six-year FAA reauthorization package that includes the controversial proposal to create a user-funded independent organization to run the air traffic control system. The 32-25 vote, largely along party lines, occurred after a more than nine-hour session in which the T&I Committee waded through close to 80 amendments on a range of aviation issues.
T&I Committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania) called the reauthorization package—the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act—“one of the most significant forward-looking legislations this committee can pass.” After Committee passage, he added, “The 21st Century AIRR Act continues to gain momentum.”
The Democratic leadership praised provisions in the bill but reiterated their opposition to the ATC measure. “We could not be further from consensus on privatization,” said Rick Larsen (D-Washington), the ranking Democrat on the T&I’s aviation subcommittee. By September 30, he added, “We need to pass an FAA reauthorization bill, not an ATC privatization bill.”
The committee rejected along party lines an amendment offered by Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-Oregon) to reform the budget process for the FAA and seek further personnel and procurement reforms, rather than create an independent ATC system.
DeFazio reiterated, “If we want to reduce delays, it’s not air traffic control that we need to reform. It’s the airlines themselves…While the flying public waits for the airlines to step up and do their part, the right thing for this committee to do is to actually solve the big problem identified by the controllers union and a chorus of other stakeholders: funding, funding, funding.”
Shuster opposed that effort, saying such reforms have previously been attempted. “It didn’t work,” he said.
The committee also voted against a number of other amendments designed to alter the ATC restructuring proposal, including measures to cap the salary of a new CEO, to alter the board makeup and to ensure revenues from any sale of ATC equipment is returned to the U.S. Treasury.
Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Indiana) withdrew a few amendments that he planned to offer to reinforce access protections and bring clarity to the ATC reform proposal, saying that he instead has found he could not support the proposal at all. Rokita noted that he had worked with the committee leadership to try to plug the “holes” in the proposal, but there are “still problems,” as well as the risk of unintended consequences. Rokita, one of the few who broke party ranks to vote against the bill, held up letters from multiple general aviation associations that remained in opposition.
DeFazio joined in that conversation, saying that while general aviation would be shielded from user fees, its lack of contribution could set up a situation where preference would be given to paying users.
Rokita, however, did offer a provision that was included in a block of accepted amendments that would shield the FAA aircraft registry from a government shutdown. The block of amendments also included a measure from Rep. Mark Sanford (R- South Carolina) calling for the FAA to work with stakeholders to examine policies surrounding supersonic operations and report on planned actions to update those policies. Among other accepted amendments was a measure offered by Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Virginia) that would set the stage for the addition of remote towers beyond pilot projects.
The committee rejected another amendment by DeFazio to mandate ADS-B equipage by the 2020 deadline. He noted that the airlines have sought an extension, while general aviation is equipping. But Rep. Sam Graves (R-Missouri) opposed the measure, saying he did not want to take away the ability for the FAA to grant an extension and expressed his belief that “GA is fixing to ask for an extension.” He added that the industry will not make the deadline, saying, “the numbers don’t work.”
Also among the rejected measures was a directive for the FAA to work with communities in New Jersey and the Los Angeles area to develop helicopter operational restrictions. The measure, “Regulations to Reduce Helicopter Noise Pollution in Certain Residential Areas,” was jointly offered by Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-California) and Albio Sires (D-New Jersey). Sires noted the number of air tours to view the New York City skyline is growing in New Jersey and many residents have been upset by the “the persistent problem.” He also expressed concern that the helicopters are a danger since they “are falling.”
Graves, however, expressed concern that this is another attempt to restrict access. “What worries me more than anything else is the slippery slope that goes along with this,” he said.
The committee tackled myriad issues surrounding unmanned systems, training, security, airport funding, consumer protections and essential air service, among others.