2016 Year in Review: A Short-term FAA Bill Resets the Debate on ATC Reform

 - December 22, 2016, 2:42 AM

When the 115th U.S. Congress convenes in January, it will face another FAA reauthorization deadline. The House and Senate will have until September 30 to come up with another comprehensive reauthorization bill, providing a new opportunity to finish unresolved issues such as certification reform, taxation of aircraft management fees and possibly even the so-called fuel fraud measure. But it also will provide a venue to reopen the unresolved debate surrounding air traffic reform.

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who is returning as the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee, has left little doubt this is high on his agenda, and he is encouraged that he may have a new ally in the White House. The lawmaker has spoken to President-elect Donald Trump about ATC reform “in broad terms and…thought he was open to the concept,” the committee confirmed.

General aviation advocates, who have strongly opposed the concept of an independent ATC organization, have noted that the “wild card” in the ATC debate might be the position of the next administration. The Obama Administration has remained neutral on the concept.

Shuster also could receive backing from Trump’s selection for the next secretary of transportation, Elaine Chao, who has spent the past seven years as a fellow at the conservative think tank and ATC privatization advocate, the Heritage Foundation.

At the same time, though, opponents remain firmly entrenched, including Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who reiterated his position in late fall in a letter opposing a failed proposal regarding Defense Department acceptance of ATC reform.

Democratic leaders on the House T&I Committee also restated their opposition to the proposal. “The results of [the] election may have given proponents of ATC privatization hope that their proposal will have more success in the next Congress, but those same proponents have failed to answer the many serious questions regarding their plan,” said Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the committee.

While the new Congress will be little changed from the previous one, the margins between Republicans and Democrats have narrowed, providing an ever-so-slightly steeper climb for Shuster’s independent ATC vision.

Airlines for America spent the fall campaigning for the proposed ATC changes, printing ads in Capitol Hill publications suggesting ATC reform could be an early win for the new administration. As currently envisioned, the leadership of the organization would give airlines a degree of influence that business and general aviation find disturbing.

A4A chairman and American Airlines president and CEO Doug Parker in September plainly stated the association’s position: “There is little debate that we need to advance from World War II processes and technology,” he noted, pointing to the support that ATC reform has received from past FAA administrators, controllers and administrations. “The question is…how quickly can we get there?”

At the same time the business and general aviation organizations have not wavered in their opposition and plans to fight such proposals.

“The question on the table is what’s going to be different this time around. Every time you go into a new battle, you have to recognize it’s not the old war. There will be evolutions,” NBAA president Ed Bolen said during the association’s annual convention in November.

The stage was reset for the ATC battle in July, when Congress opted for an 18-month reauthorization bill rather than a longer-term bill. In early February, Shuster had introduced and hoped for a six-year bill that included his proposal to create a user-funded, independent organization to run the nation’s ATC.

That bill was comprehensive, addressing everything from certification reform to drones to aeromedical reform. Shuster was able to push the bill through the committee over the objections of the Democrats. But the bill’s progress ended there.

Alongside Democrats, leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations Committee voiced opposition, because the proposal would remove ATC from the traditional appropriations process. Also, some corners of conservative Republicans voiced opposition, and House Ways and Means Committee leaders expressed reservations.

In the face of such opposition, the House leadership refused to bring up the Shuster bill.

In the Senate, Commerce Committee chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) suggested an openness to the concept, but stopped short of fully embracing it. He saw similar opposition in the Senate, and decided against taking on that battle. Working with Nelson, he instead suggested the 18-month bill. After negotiating with House leaders, the lawmakers in July reached a compromise that led to passage of the FAA Extension, Safety and Security Act of 2016, which ensured the continuity of the FAA’s operations through the end of this September.

That bill addressed myriad other issues, among them third-class pilot medical reform, unmanned aircraft systems operation and airport security. But it left out one of the centerpieces of the Shuster bill: certification and regulatory reform.

The bill’s inclusion of third-class medical reform was a landmark victory for general aviation advocates. “This is the most significant legislative victory for general aviation in decades,” said AOPA president Mark Baker. “These reforms will provide relief to hundreds of thousands of pilots from an outdated, costly and unnecessarily burdensome system.” The bill also drew praise for a measure calling on the FAA to require marking of towers between 50 and 200 feet tall to make them more visible to low-flying aircraft.

But the omission of certification and regulatory reform left a key issue to serve as a potential anchor for the next reauthorization bill. The shorter-term bill also leaves open the possibility for other issues supported by the business aviation community.

Legislation that would clarify aircraft management fee taxation advanced in the House last year, and an FAA reauthorization bill could host that issue. Also, a new study by a government watchdog highlighted the fact that as much as $2 billion in fuel taxes from business aircraft might have been permanently diverted to the Highway Trust Fund as a result of the “fuel-fraud” law. While that is politically a more difficult issue, given the fact that the Highway Trust Fund has struggled to remain solvent, an FAA reauthorization bill might also serve as a venue to fix that revenue diversion.

Reform advocates will regard a long-term bill as their next best chance to reorganize the ATC system. “There will absolutely be another proposal to separate the ATC system,” Bolen said.