Dems look to ground private air traffic control plan

Getty Images

Two House Democrats are mobilizing liberal groups against a Republican proposal to privatize large portions of the nation's air traffic control system in a funding measure for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). 

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) are joining a group of liberal organizations that have collected 115,000 signatures for a petition against a proposal from House Republicans to create a new nongovernmental agency that would take over air traffic control from the FAA.

Lawmakers are debating the air traffic control privatization proposal as Congress tries to beat a March 31 deadline for renewing the agency's funding.

Cummings and Norton said Tuesday that GOP leaders should back off of their air traffic control privatization plan and focus on passing a new round of funding for the FAA. 

“An FAA reauthorization bill that includes severing and privatizing Air Traffic Control has not emerged, but, as petitions submitted today from the public demonstrate, the long suspense has understandably fed fears for public safety, loss and downgrading of middle class jobs, and increased costs passed on to passengers — unacceptable tradeoffs,” Norton said in a statement.  

“As a member who once practiced constitutional law, I seriously question whether Congress can constitutionally delegate air traffic control to a private, even non-profit, entity," she continued. "Yet, there is considerable frustration about the dysfunction of the current FAA, which has been repeatedly victimized by the chronic delays and cuts in the appropriations process even before the dangerous sequester cuts.

"We are long past due for serious discussions between Democrats and Republicans that could produce a bill that would pass both the House and Senate.” 

GOP leaders in the House have said the proposed nongovernmental entity could better manage the commercial and private jet flights in the nation's airspace. 

"After examining various models, I believe we need to establish a federally chartered, fully independent not-for-profit corporation to operate and modernize our [air traffic control] services," House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said during a speech last June at the Aero Club of Washington. 

The push to privatize most facets of air traffic control comes as the FAA is in the midst of a years-long effort to discard the World War II-era radar technology currently used to manage airplane traffic in favor of a new satellite-based system, known as NextGen.

The conversion has hit turbulence amid missed deadlines and rampant budget cutting in Washington, and supporters of the privatization proposal have said the FAA is ill-equipped to complete the project.

Cummings and Norton are scheduled to appear on a conference call about the opposition to the air traffic control privatization plan with officials from Daily Kos, People Demanding Action, Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division and Progressive Congress. 

The groups said they will "discuss plans to travel to Capitol Hill to deliver a petition to Congress from 115,000 Americans who oppose the privatization of the ATC." 

Most major airlines support the air traffic control privatization plan. The group that lobbies for them in Washington said Tuesday that opponents are mischaracterizing the proposal to alter the nation's flight navigation system. 

"Today’s announced coalition believes the status quo is just fine and it is arguing against positions NO ONE is taking," Airlines for America said in a statement.  

"Proponents of reform advocate for a not-for-profit organization that will be overseen by the FAA and governed by a board inclusive of all stakeholders, including employee unions, general aviation and private fliers, and passengers," the group continued. 

"That’s the way air traffic services are run in most of the rest of the world," the group added. "We want to see more air traffic controllers hired. We want to make the system even more safe. And most importantly, we want to make flying better for the traveling public. Members of Congress should want the same thing.” 

The airline group added that "modernizing Air Traffic Control is a critical step toward enhancing safety and making flying more dependable and efficient for consumers."

"Any one of the two million people who fly every day can tell you: Air Traffic Control is not as efficient as it could be," the group said. 

This story was updated at 2:52 p.m.