Earlier this year the US airline industry appeared poised to succeed in its years-long quest to strip air traffic control (ATC) from the Federal Aviation Administration.
After all, an industry-led bill to corporatise ATC enjoyed broad support from lawmakers, the entire airline industry and even President Donald Trump.
Though that support remains, the success of the effort has become increasingly uncertain amid political and industry opposition, a competing FAA bill and the ticking clock of the fiscal calendar
Alex Stillman, director in the travel and transportation practice at consultancy PwC, tells FlightGlobal in an email: “It is hard to envision a path between now and [the end of September] that leads to ATC privatisation being taken up and passed in the form that supporters hoped.
“The last three months have seen increased challenges politically and legislatively, and the bipartisan support an initiative like infrastructure reform was supposed to enjoy… is now in question,” he adds.
The end of September marks the last day of the federal government’s fiscal year and the last day of the FAA’s current spending authorisation.
Supporters of ATC overhaul have until that date to garner votes for an FAA reauthorisation bill that would transfer ATC into a non-profit organisation.
The office of Republican Congressman Bill Shuster, the chair of the House Transportation Committee who introduced the bill, said: “Chairman Shuster continues to work hard to move the [bill] on to the floor, and we remain optimistic to accomplish the goal when Congress returns in September.”
But Congress is on recess until 5 September, which means very few legislative days remain on the calendar before 31 September, observers note.
Indeed, the Senate has just 17 working days in September and the House of Representatives just 12, according to congressional calendars.
In that short period, Congress must address “two more-urgent needs”, says Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at research group Reason Foundation.
Lawmakers must pass a fiscal year 2018 appropriations bill for the entire US federal government, notes Poole, whose organisation supported ATC corportisation as early as 1983.
Also, congressional leaders have pledged by the end of September to raise the federal debt limit to prevent the country from defaulting on payments.
“Those two items may consume nearly all the legislative time and energy in September,” says Poole.
PwC’s Stillman agrees. “With the latest commentary about possible budget shutdowns and with the limited time left in the legislative session before end-September, I am not sure many leaders will see much beyond securing funding to avoid a shutdown – never mind adding privatisation to the mix,” he says.
YEARS IN THE MAKING
Efforts to strip ATC from the FAA date to at least 1974, when an air traffic controllers’ union advocated an independent body, according to a May report from the Congressional Research Service.
The effort enjoyed some momentum in the 1980s during the administration of Republican President Ronald Reagan, and in the 1990s under Democrat Bill Clinton. But corporatisation – opponents call it privatisation – has faced pushback from small airports and the general and business aviation communities.
Those groups have argued that powerful airlines would excessively influence an independent ATC organisation. They have also warned of service cuts at smaller communities, and higher fees.
In recent years, US airlines revived the push to separate ATC, and in June the effort received Trump’s support.
Trump pitched the idea as an antidote to a current ATC operation that he described in a press conference as an “ancient, broken, antiquated, horrible system that doesn’t work”.
Shuster responded in June with the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorisation Act.
The bill would transfer ATC into a non-profit organisation, funded by fees paid by users and managed by representatives from government and industry.
Shuster and backers of the bill argue that an industry-funded ATC would be better able to implement the multibillion-dollar modernisation known as NextGen.
Such an organisation would also free ATC from the vagaries and unpredictability of government funding requirements, they have argued.
Currently, the FAA needs authorisations to collect and disburse funds in the Airport and Airways Trust Fund, which provides the majority of its budget.
However, Congress frequently passes only short-term funding bills, and in 2011 actually allowed the authorisation to lapse, causing some work stoppages, according to a 2015 Government Accountability Office report.
Poole and others saw promise in Shuster’s bill, partly because of broad industry support.
Even Delta Air Lines, which had long stood as the industry’s lone opponent, reversed course.
“We are huge proponents of the president’s agenda to modernise the air traffic control system,” Delta chief executive Ed Bastian said in July. “This is the only game in town in terms of moving things forward.”
Poole says Shuster’s bill also includes compromises intended to address otherwise unwavering opposition.
For instance, the ATC organisation’s 13-member board would include just three members nominated by the airline industry (one each nominated by major airlines, regional airlines and cargo airlines). It would also have one airport-nominated member.
By comparison, a similar bill Shuster released in 2016 called for four airline representatives and none from airports.
“Having board seats nominated by airports and regional airlines should reduce the perception that small airports and rural states will lose out from corporatisation,” Poole wrote in a July posting on his organisation’s website.
Shuster’s bill also exempts general aviation users from paying user fees, which might have softened opposition, Poole says.
The changes, however, have not allayed concerns from the private aircraft community, which is battling the legislation through a coalition called the Alliance for Aviation Across America.
That group’s members include the National Business Aviation Association and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
The coalition said in a 23 August media release that the UK’s ATC system, following privatisation, has been “plagued by increasing delays, widespread technical glitches [and] mass strandings”.
In July the same group posted a video in which Sully Sullenberger, captain of the US Airways A320 that ditched in the Hudson River in 2009, said ATC privatisation would give large airlines “the keys to the kingdom”.
“We can’t trust the people who make your airline seats smaller to run ATC,” Sullenberger said.
Shuster’s proposal also faces competition from a separate, Senate-backed FAA reauthorisation bill that would leave ATC as it is.
But that bill, too, faces opposition due an amendment approved by senators in June that modifies a 2010 law requiring new pilots have 1,500h of flight time.
The amendment would give regulators more leeway to grant credits towards the 1,500h threshold to pilots who complete “structured and disciplined training courses”.
The US regional airline industry has opposed the 1,500h rule, insisting that pilots who fly for the sole purpose of accumulating hours – by towing banners, for instance – are less qualified than pilots who have fewer hours but who are fresh out of flight school.
Regional airlines have also said the rule exacerbated an already-short supply of pilots.
The powerful Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA), however, has opposed any easing of the 1,500h rule.
“Profit-minded special-interest groups are actually trying to gut these air safety rules and put the flying public at risk,” ALPA president Tim Canoll recently wrote in an editorial in The Hill.
All those factors – the 31 September deadline, the competing bills and the ongoing opposition – could lead Congress to step back and take a simpler and familiar route: a short-term FAA funding bill that excludes any sweeping overhauls, Poole says.
In his mind, however, such a move would perfectly exemplify a problem that supporters of ATC overhaul want to solve.
“Delays of that kind, of course, serve to further make the case that ATC is too important to be left to the mercies of the federal budget process,” Poole says.
PwC’s Stillman adds that the ATC privatisation effort is unlikely to end if Shuster’s bill fails this time around.
“Surprises and unpredictability [are] now the norm,” he says. “I don’t think the stakeholder alignment will disappear, but perhaps these political and legislative challenges will fade.”