House Republicans are divided on a piece of legislation that would would remove air traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration and instead establish an independent nonprofit to oversee the function.
House Speaker Paul Ryan supports the nonprofit system, yet many Republicans do not back the measure, known as the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act, particularly Republicans from rural areas.
“The rural piece is definitely an important one, politically especially,” said Michael Sargent, transportation and infrastructure policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation. “That’s where you have a lot of friction in the Republican Party.”
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and champion of the bill, himself represents a rural area and said he would never back any piece of legislation that would harm his community, or that would curtail service for general aviation.
“I would never support something that would hurt my rural district, reduce our connection to the nation’s aviation system, or limit service for America’s essential GA community,” Shuster said in a statement.
The bill is on the back burner as House Republicans focus on other issues, especially tax reform. The measure faces bipartisan opposition, yet it does have three Democratic co-sponsors. Opponents of the legislation warn that commercials airlines’ interests could supersede those of general aviation and that Congress would no longer be involved in decisions concerning general aviation.
A 13-member board would manage the nonprofit air traffic control organization and would have representatives from commercial airlines, cargo airlines, regional airlines, general aviation, controllers, commercial service airports, along with two at-large seats chosen by the other directors. For some, this is cause for concern.
“I’m worried the current plan’s quasi-private board will be unaccountable to Congress and as a result put the big airlines in charge of all future decisions without consideration for Americans who rely on general aviation at our rural airports,” Rep. Ron Estes, R-Kansas, said in a statement.
Additionally, groups including the National Business Aviation Association have expressed concern that the nonprofit would limit the general aviation community’s access to airports because Congress will not have the authority to ensure such access, and that procedures would be implemented that put commercial airlines’ ahead of general aviation’s.
But proponents of the legislation are pushing back on claims that the controversial piece of legislation would harm rural communities and general aviation.
“Despite the scare tactics of the wealthy lobby for private jet owners and big-government opponents of FAA reform, our bipartisan bill will actually ensure continued airspace access and no new fees for GA, improve air traffic service opportunities for rural communities, provide robust funding for America’s small airports, and give rural and small communities a voice in decisions affecting their own air service — something they don’t currently have,” Shuster said.
Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., believes the plan would actually give rural areas better aviation opportunities.
“An air traffic control update would help regional airports and helps rural America by making sure we have the most up-to-date technology that’s available to get our plane traffic, air traffic, from one place to the other in a more direct route rather than the hub-and-spokes system we have now,” Davis told the Washington Examiner. “That to me means that regional airports might have better opportunities to talk about more direct flights rather than going through major hubs and that would be a huge benefit to many of the regional airports that I serve.”
The plan is modeled after Canada’s system, which was implemented in 1996 and is now the world’s second largest air navigation service provider based on traffic volume. Great Britain and New Zealand have adopted independently controlled air traffic control systems as well.
The nonprofit system would be funded by user fees, but unlike the Canadian model, the bill exempts all general aviation from those payments.
“I’d argue, if anything, it will make air service more affordable in rural areas because not only will it overall be cheaper, we’ll see cost reductions, but then we’ll see much better adoption of new technologies,” Sargent said.
Davis said although Congress has attempted to get the FAA to upgrade technologies through NextGen, a long-term plan to update the current radar-based transportation system to satellite navigation by 2025, there have been numerous discussions regarding why the FAA is not implementing the updates sooner.
“We’ve got to start with the conclusion that the status quo is clearly not working,” Davis said. “We’re decades behind some other countries when it comes to air traffic control.”
Shuster agrees it’s time to seek alternatives to NextGen. “We can either go on throwing away billions of taxpayer dollars on failed government modernization efforts like NextGen, or we can finally move forward and ensure that America’s aviation system works for everyone who uses it, from the average passenger, to our small and rural communities, to general aviation users,” Shuster said.
Many small airports are served by contract towers by private companies. The contract towers provide comparable service to FAA-operated towers at airports with similar levels of activity, but cost roughly a quarter less to operate, according to inspector general reports from the Department of Transportation.
Robert Poole, a transportation expert with the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank, said the program known as Contract Tower Program, which was created in 1982 and is not part of NextGen, must continue, although the FAA has a budgetary moratorium on approving any new contract towers due to caps from the Budget Control Act. The 21st Century AIRR Act would maintain the Contract Tower Program and funding would resume under the air traffic control corporation’s auspices.
“The most important thing for rural areas is to be sure that they have affordable control towers,” Poole said. “There’s lots and lots airports in the United States that don’t have control towers. A control tower means the airport will be safer and it also means the locality, the city or town with that airport, will be taken more seriously as a business location, because regional airlines might start scheduling service there whereas they would be more reluctant if they don’t have the tower.”
Additionally, remote towers may be another alternative that would benefit small airports, Poole said. Some European countries including Sweden, which are run by an independent air traffic control corporation, have implemented remote towers with plans to install more.
But the FAA has no plans to install remote towers, although there are privately funded pilot projects in Leesburg, Va., and Loveland, Colo.
“A self-funded [air traffic control] corporation would very likely embrace Remote Towers as a way to expand contract towers more efficiently for small airports, ending the moratorium,” Poole said.
As the FAA’s legal authority neared expiration at the end of September, Shuster’s bill did not gain wide enough support leading up to the expiration. As a result, lawmakers approved a six-month extension that expires in March.
Even so, more time may be needed to find support for the measure as House Republicans continue to clash on the issue.
“I would not at all be surprised if they do another extension at the end of March when the six months expires,” Poole said.