Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao today acknowledged concerns of the general aviation community about the proposal for an independent air traffic control system and vowed to continue to work with the groups to assuage their fears. However, she also said that those fears “are unfounded.”
Chao, who testified for the second consecutive day on Capitol Hill—this time before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (T&I)—recognized fears surrounding general aviation and rural community access under the Trump Administration’s proposal for ATC reform. She said she has worked with business and general aviation groups and added she wants to “partner with them to address some of the issues.”
She further dismissed concerns that the system would be run by the airlines, saying it would be run by a independent board with only a couple of seats appointed by the airlines. “The board will not be dominated by airlines,” she stressed.
Having said that, she also pointed out that general aviation is not composed of only mom-and-pop operators, but also includes corporate jets.
The Trump proposal received a mixed reception during today’s hearing, with many of the Republicans referring to a need for change and emphasizing “the status quo is unacceptable,” while Democrats questioned the capitalization of the new organization, long-term labor outlook and prospects for environmental reviews for future changes.
As in yesterday’s hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, protections for rural airports and contract towers were emphasized. Chao again noted current vulnerabilities under sequestration. “Contract towers are always the first to be cut back when there are budget pressures,” she said, adding there would be more protections in the future. When further questioned about protections for rural communities, she added, “It can’t be any worse than it is now,” given the vulnerabilities to cuts.
Chao acknowledged that “in broad terms,” a private air traffic board would have an incentive to prioritize operations of larger airports, but said “we are open to working with Congress” on the details to preserve access. “Rural America overall is an important aspect. We are open to discussion about that.”
Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Washington), noting that comprehensive reauthorization encompasses a spectrum of issues, expressed concern that the controversy surrounding the ATC reform could lead Congress to another short-term bill rather than a long-term bill. He asked if Chao would support moving forward with reauthorization without addressing the ATC reform issues.
Chao responded that the administration’s preference is that “liberation” of the ATC organization would be considered and passed. But she added, “We want to work with the committee and the Congress. Let’s work on the issues and see how far we can get.”
“There is consensus about the need for a long-term FAA bill that reforms the FAA's certification processes, integrates unmanned aircraft and improves safety,” Larsen said in his opening statement. “That's the bill we should be talking about today. That's the bill we must enact with no further delay. Absolutely no science experiments, just bipartisan provisions that have broad stakeholder support and should have already been enacted.”
T&I Committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania) re-emphasized the need to take action. “Without bold action, America will without a doubt fall behind other nations in aviation,” Shuster said. “It’s time for this committee and for Congress to act, and I look forward to working with the secretary as we do that.”