Lawmakers slam plan to separate air traffic control from FAA

Lawmakers slam plan to separate air traffic control from FAA
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A bipartisan group of appropriators in the House and Senate are throwing cold water on a Republican proposal to separate the nation's air traffic control system from the Federal Aviation Administration. 

Reps. Hal RogersHarold (Hal) Dallas RogersThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by PhRMA — Tensions mount for House Republicans Koch-backed group to target some Republicans over spending vote in new ad campaign Sadly, fiscal restraint is no longer a core principle of the GOP MORE (R-Ky.), Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyWomen poised to take charge in Dem majority Trump faces long odds in avoiding big spending bill House panel advances homeland security bill with billion in border wall funding MORE (D-N.Y.), Mario Diaz-BalartMario Rafael Diaz-BalartTrump faces long odds in avoiding big spending bill 'Minibus' spending conference committee abruptly canceled Trump vows to stand with House GOP '1,000 percent' on immigration MORE (R-Fla.) and David PriceDavid Eugene PriceHouse panel advances homeland security bill with billion in border wall funding House panel pushes back against Trump asylum rule on domestic, gang violence DNC chair backing plan to cut superdelegates opposed by Dem lawmakers MORE (D-N.C.) said in a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that removing air traffic control from the purview of the FAA would diminish Congress' ability to regulate the nation's aviation system. 

"As the House of Representatives considerations reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), we write to inform you we will not support legislation that would create a separate air traffic organization outside the FAA and removed from the annual appropriations process," they wrote. 

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"The annual oversight and funding role of Congress is critical to providing individual citizens and communities a voice, through their elected representatives, in the operation of our nation's air traffic system." 

The lawmakers' letter was circulated Tuesday by aviation groups opposed to the independent air traffic control plan.

It comes after the top-ranking lawmakers on the Senate Appropriations Committee sent a similar letter to leaders of the upper chamber last week. 

"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 Cochran (R-Miss.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) wrote in a letter to the leaders of the Senate committee that handles transportation issues.

"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." 

Republicans on the House Transportation Committee want to create a new nongovernmental organization that would take over air traffic control from the FAA in an upcoming funding measure. 

Lawmakers are debating the 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 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. 

Critics, however, have said the proposal would amount to a privatization of the nation's air traffic control system. 

"When both sides of the aisle and both the Senate and House agree, it's important. As Shuster plans to introduce the reauthorization this week, this letter highlights a simple fact: the proposal to privatize the air traffic control system puts Americans at risk," Americans Against Air Traffic Privatization spokesperson Julia Alschuler said in a statement. 

"The House Appropriations Committee's bipartisan opposition, like that of the Senate Appropriations Committee before them, is grounded in the belief that it's the responsibility of the government to protect the safety and security of this vital public good, and that turning such a responsibility over to an unaccountable organization would leave the American people vulnerable to corporate interests," she continued.

"Instead, it's time to restore long term stable funding to the FAA and continue the work already taking place to modernize our air traffic system."

The push to remove most facets of air traffic control from the FAA's purview comes amid a years-long effort by the agency 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 budget-cutting in Washington, and supporters of the privatization proposal have said the FAA is ill-equipped to complete the project.

Most of the nation's major airlines are supporting the plan to create a new air traffic control organization that would be separate the FAA.

The group that lobbies in Washington for most major carriers has rejected the idea that separating air traffic control from the FAA would amount to a privatization of the nation's flight navigation system. 

"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 recent 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.” 

The lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee, though, on Tuesday said they "do not believe that creating a separate air traffic entity, removed from congressional oversight, will advance efforts to modernize air traffic control." 

"The Committee on Appropriations has a proven record of providing robust funding to advance air traffic technologies in the national interest," they wrote. "While the FAA can and should improve and accelerate the development of modernized air traffic systems, we do not believe the solution is less oversight and less accountability." 

Lawmakers on the House Transportation Committee are expected to unveil their proposed changes to the air traffic control system when they release a draft of the FAA bill Wednesday.