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Private air traffic control plan hits turbulence in Senate

Private air traffic control plan hits turbulence in Senate
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The top ranking lawmakers on the Senate Appropriations Committee are looking to ground a House Republican proposal to privatize large portions of the nation's air traffic control system before it takes off in Congress.

"These proposals have two fundamental problems: they break apart the FAA, and they diminish the ability of Congress to oversee the aviation system," Sens. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranChamber of Commerce makes play in Mississippi Senate race for Hyde-Smith Shelby approved as Appropriations panel chairman Cindy Hyde-Smith sworn in as Mississippi's latest senator MORE (R-Miss.), Barbara MikulskiBarbara Ann MikulskiDems ponder gender politics of 2020 nominee Robert Mueller's forgotten surveillance crime spree Clinton: White House slow-walking Russia sanctions MORE (D-Md.), Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Energy: Trump NASA pick advances after drama | White House office to investigate Pruitt's soundproof booth | 170 lawmakers call for Pruitt to resign Trump's NASA nominee advances after floor drama Family, friends mourn death of Barbara Bush MORE (R-Maine) and Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedDems walk tightrope on Pompeo nomination Dem senators call on FCC to protect against robocalls Senate Dems press Trump on legal justification for potential Syria strike MORE (D-R.I.) wrote in a letter a letter to the leaders of the Senate committee that handles transportation issues.

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"The United States is a world leader in aviation, with the largest, most complex air transportation in the world," the senators continued. "We are also a world leader in aviation safety. Commercial aviation fatalities are at historic lows, yet the FAA continues to innovate and improve its approach to safety oversight. It does not make sense to break apart the FAA, an essential part of our success in aviation." 

The lawmakers' letter was circulated on Friday by aviation groups that are opposed to the privatization plan.

Republicans in the House are pushing to create a new nongovernmental organization that would take over air traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration in an upcoming funding measure. 

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

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 Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said during a speech last June at the Aero Club of Washington. 

The lawmakers on the Senate Appropriations Committee said privatizing the nation's air traffic control system would make it harder for the federal government to ensure that aviation safety standards are met by airlines and private jet operators. 

"The public would not be well served by exempting any part of the FAA from annual congressional oversight," they wrote. 

"The annual appropriations process provides the oversight of agency resources that is necessary to ensure accountability for program performance and a sustained focus on aviation safety," the letter continued. "Congressional oversight also ensures that the FAA maintains a system that works across the aviation industry, including general aviation and small and rural communities as well as commercial airlines and large metropolitan cities." 

Opponents of the air traffic control privatization proposal have mobilized against the plan before it has been unveiled by the House. 

"Keeping our air travel safe and efficient is not a partisan issue. The bipartisan leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee understand this, and our coalition is grateful that Chairman Cochran and the other leaders have said clearly that removing air traffic control from the FAA is not in the best interest of the American people," the newly-formed Americans Against Air Traffic Privatization group said in a statement. 

"We hope that Chairman Shuster and Chairman Thune will listen to their colleagues and move forward with an FAA reauthorization proposal that keeps this vital public good out of the hands of a private organization beholden to corporate interests," said the group, which was formed earlier this week.  

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.

Most major airlines support the air traffic control privatization plan. The group that lobbies for them in Washington said this week that opponents are jumping the gun and mischaracterizing the proposal to alter the nation's flight navigation system before it is unveiled. 

"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," Airlines for America said in a statement.  

"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.” 

Smaller aviation groups that represent noncommercial flight operators have been more measured about the air traffic control privatization proposal, saying recently that lawmakers should not rush to embrace the air traffic control privatization proposals, despite claims from backers about the success of similar systems in Canada and several European nations. 

"The general aviation community has very real and long-standing concerns about foreign air traffic control models, which go well beyond the user fee issue," a group of 15 non-commercial aviation organizations in Washington said in letter to members of the House Transportation Committee earlier this month. 

"These concerns are based on our operating experiences in foreign systems, as well as thoughtful analysis about what those systems might look like in the United States," the noncommercial aviation groups continued.  

Lawmakers in the House are expected to unveil their proposed changes to the air traffic control system when they a draft of the FAA bill next month. 

-Updated with new information at 3:25 p.m.