Showdown on ATC Reform Looms in U.S. House

 - July 17, 2017, 9:54 AM

As a possible U.S. House vote nears on the comprehensive six-year FAA reauthorization bill, lobbying efforts swirling around the controversial measure to create a user-funded independent air traffic organization have intensified. Backers of the bill, the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act, were hopeful that it could be brought up for full House consideration in a matter of days, with a goal of having it passed at least by the end of the month.

The Rules Committee, considered a final stop before the bill heads to the floor, had set a noon deadline today for amendments. Typically the committee establishes the “rule” for House consideration within a day or so after deadline for amendment that would be filed.

However, when House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) announced the upcoming legislative schedule on Friday, the FAA reauthorization bill was not among those listed. Lawmakers on Friday were believed to be assessing the vote count, and while it was unclear how a vote on the bill may shake out, the tally was expected to be close.

Backers of the ATC reform bill received key cooperation from the House Ways and Means Committee, which filed the tax component to accompany the FAA reauthorization bill. That is a step further than last year, when the bill was shelved before it could be married with a tax provision.

Under the bill filed with the Rules Committee, the aviation excise taxes would be continued through Sept. 30, 2020. Then the bill would “proportionally reduce…all existing aviation taxes funding the Airport and Airway Trust Fund beginning after Sept. 30, 2020, and through Sept. 30, 2023, following the transition period of air traffic services to the corporation.” Estimates are the aviation excise taxes would by reduced by about 80 percent, leaving enough to cover the Airport Improvement Program. Meanwhile, the independent ATC organization would set user fees to cover ATC costs. 

As originally outlined, the proposal would exempt business and general aviation users from the user fees, but they would continue to pay excise taxes.

While the bill managers staged the bill for a vote, backers were working behind the scenes to build support. The FAA had remained neutral throughout the debate over the last several years. But now the agency has firmly jumped into the effort to push the bill.

It’s time to for the U.S. to join most of the industrialized world and separate its ATC system from the agency that also provides safety oversight,” wrote Chris Brown, who recently joined the FAA as assistant administrator of government and industry affairs after serving as staff director for the House aviation subcommittee and vice president for legislative and regulatory policy at Airlines for America. The Brown email, which has led some to question its appropriateness, “With major benefits and protections included in the AIRR Act, the general aviation community is best served by an air traffic control system operated by a separate entity governed by system users rather than bureaucrats in Washington.”

Also, in a move that has put him directly at odds with the general aviation community, House General Aviation caucus co-chair Sam Graves (R-Missouri) has turned to his fellow caucus members, highlighting the benefits of the air traffic control reform provision. In his statement of support for the bill during the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Graves noted that now that his major concerns have been addressed—including user fees and protections for access—he believes “the federal government should not be managing our ATC system.”

Industry Steps Up Opposition

General aviation groups have expressed disappointment with this position, and at a pilot town hall meeting in Tarkio, Missouri, several association leaders reiterated their adamant opposition.

Experimental Aircraft Association chairman and CEO Jack Pelton further expressed that position to lawmakers, saying, “The misrepresentation of our position is getting beyond frustrating. Some voices in Congress and elsewhere in government purporting to speak for general aviation do not in any way, shape or form represent the views of the general aviation community…We stand completely united in opposition to any effort to remove air traffic control from the FAA and Congressional oversight.”

GA groups also have been intensifying their alerts to members to call their local lawmakers in opposition, urging them to use their individual contact Congress sites.

NATA has reached out to members of the House Rural Caucus. In a letter president Martin Hiller warned those members, “The legislation undermines incentives to invest in rural America and its supporters vastly overstate the effectiveness of provisions purportedly protecting general aviation’s right to access the important airports and airways connecting rural America with the rest of the nation.”

The Alliance for Aviation Across America, which represents rural community concerns, teamed with passenger advocacy groups to voice concerns that the provision would help airlines “grab even more power.”

Consumers and passengers have expressed grave concern over giving the big airlines unchecked power,” said Selena Shilad, executive director of the alliance in a joint call with the passenger advocacy groups.

The opposition also has gotten a boost from famed pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who expressed concern to news anchor Katie Couric in an interview that the provision would hand over the ATC system “to a group of people, stakeholders basically controlled by the largest airlines, to control access to and pricing of access to the air traffic control system. That’s an extreme solution to what’s really a political budget problem.”