The effort to create an independent, not-for-profit corporation to run the U.S. air traffic control system was poised to take a step forward today as the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee starts consideration of the comprehensive FAA reauthorization bill, H.R.4441.
The committee’s consideration begins a week after T&I chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) unveiled the bill, the Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act, which contained the controversial measure to create the user-funded ATC organization governed by an 11-member board.
The committee today is considering a number of amendments, and debate was expected to continue for most of the day. Among those approved was a managers amendment that tweaks the privatization proposal to clarify that charter operators in Alaska are exempt from user fees, to ensure there are not financial conflicts with the board members and to ensure the board acts in the public’s best interest.
The committee rejected along party lines an amendment by privatization opponent Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, to move in a different direction. Instead of privatizing the agency, the DeFazio amendment would have further reformed FAA procurement and taken the aviation trust fund off budget to shield it from the stops and starts of the congressional appropriations process. DeFazio said the amendment was designed to resolve the chief concerns that were stated in favor of the privatized system. “This amendment [would] protect the FAA from the dysfunction exhibited by the U.S. Congress,” he said.
Shuster, however, argued the DeFazio amendment would “gut the entire bill” and said, “We’ve tried all these provisions before and they have all failed. This amendment takes the entire FAA completely off budget, creating an untouchable regulatory agency. The trust fund would become an ATM for the FAA Administrator.”
The action comes a day after a hearing described by some as sometimes fiery while lawmakers and stakeholders debated the merits of the proposal.
NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen had urged lawmakers to scrap the proposal, calling the move risky and a “power grab” by the airlines: “Putting the existing air traffic monopoly beyond the reach of the public’s elected representatives and giving it to the big airlines is a fatally flawed concept.”
Other members of the panel—representatives of the airlines, controllers and the Reason Foundation—all endorsed the proposal. Airlines for America president Nicholas Calio said he found it puzzling “why some would argue everything is working just fine” and said the creation of an independent organization “will remove the kinks from an uneven and unpredictable funding apparatus while clearing the way for other improvements: more choices for customers, more direct flights, lower fuel consumption and reduced emissions.”
The Democratic leadership expressed their opposition to the plan during yesterday’s hearing, and today DeFazio reiterated: “Let’s not pretend that this proposal isn’t fraught with problems. I think this is a solution in search of 1,000 problems.”
DeFazio also had highlighted a new Government Accountability Office report outlining the pitfalls of the transition to a separated ATC system. The report traces potential concerns surrounding funding, asset valuation, separation of safety and regulatory functions from ATC, management of impact to airspace users, human capital and ATC modernization.
Following the hearing, NATA wrote a letter dispelling a belief held by some on the committee that air charters are largely high-end passenger jets. “The legislation exempts almost 25 percent of commercial GA operations from user fees (fixed-wing piston), but sweeps in other commercial GA operations (for example air ambulance, air tours, certain types of flight instruction) that have heretofore been wholly exempt or contributed via gas taxes,” NATA president and CEO Tom Hendricks told the committee. “Worse, this community is denied representation in the Corporation’s proposed governance structure. The fact that recourse against Corporation mistreatment is largely limited to mounting a court challenge against a well funded large corporation further erodes their ability to ensure fair treatment.”
Meanwhile, the Alliance for Aviation Across America joined consumer groups in expressing opposition, writing a letter to the full House leadership saying, “We believe a shift of this core public responsibility could have significant negative impact on rural communities, consumers and citizens across the country.” The groups urged that before action Congress hold hearings to delve into questions of airline influence on investment decisions to the detriment of customer service, recourses for and protection of consumers, impact on medical flights, costs to smaller towns and impact on fees and taxes.