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Feds plead for 'certainty' in aviation funding

Feds plead for 'certainty' in aviation funding
© Anne Wernikoff

Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony FoxxFeds push for more transparency over in-flight phone calls Getting regulation right for driverless cars First US flight to Cuba's capital in over 50 years lands in Havana MORE pleaded Tuesday for "certainty" and "predictability" in the Federal Aviation Administration's funding as lawmakers are preparing to debate a new funding measure for the agency. 

The House Transportation Committee is expected to unveil its bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration's funding on Wednesday. The agency's funding is set to expire on March 31, and lawmakers are bogged down in a debate about a controversial plan to separate the nation's air traffic control system from the FAA

Foxx said Tuesday that he is taking a wait and see approach to the proposal to restructure the nation's air traffic control system, but he said he is worried debate about the proposal to create a new flight navigation organization could jeopardize the FAA's funding. 

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"There's an awful lot of pressure, given the timeframe, to figure out where to land on it and to move it through the process," he said during a briefing with reporters at the transportation department's headquarters in Washington. 

"We're concerned obviously because we don't know what's on the other side of March," Foxx continued. "Regardless of what happens, we always prefer certainty and predictability."   

Republicans on the House Transportation Committee have argued that creating a new nongovernmental organization that would take over air traffic control from the FAA would modernize the nation's aviation system. 

"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 year at the Aero Club of Washington. 

The plan to separate air traffic control from the FAA has drawn opposition from budget writers and several aviation groups in Washington. They argue the proposal would amount to a privatization of the nation's flight navigation system. 

"When both sides of the aisle and both the Senate and House agree, it's important," Americans Against Air Traffic Privatization spokesperson Julia Alschuler said in a statement, citing opposition to the proposal from lawmakers on Appropriations Committee in the House and Senate.  

"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," Alschuler 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."

Foxx said Tuesday that he has looked at independent air traffic control systems in places like Canada that have been cited by backers of the proposal to remove the FAA from the domestic flight navigation process to see if any paralllels to the U.S. system can be drawn.

But he also said the U.S. aviation system is more "complicated" than other's nation's that have pursued independent flight navigation systems. 

Still, Foxx said Tuesday that he is not willing to rule out the proposal to restructure the FAA until he sees a specific proposal from lawmakers. 

"I have to see what's being proposed," Foxx said. "If I were a reflexive no on this, I would say so." 

The debate about separating air traffic control from the FAA comes as lawmakers are debating the air traffic control privatization proposal as Congress tries to beat a rapidly approaching deadline for renewing the agency's funding in the middle of a presidential campaign that is heating up.

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 in a recent statement. "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.” 

Critics say changes to the nation's air traffic control system should be made within the existing structure of the FAA, however. 

"We do not believe that creating a separate air traffic entity, removed from congressional oversight, will advance efforts to modernize air traffic control," Reps. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and David Price (D-N.C.) said in a letter that was circulated on Tuesday by aviation groups that are opposed to the independent air traffic control plan. 

"The Committee on Appropriations has a proven record of providing robust funding to advance air traffic technologies in the national interest," they continued. "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."