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Air traffic control fight heating up

Air traffic control fight heating up
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Republican leaders on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee unveiled a funding bill on Wednesday that would separate the nation’s air traffic control system from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). 

The Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act is intended to prevent an interruption in federal aviation funding next month. It would extend the FAA’s funding until 2022, but the measure would also create a new nongovernmental organization that would take over air traffic control from the agency in approximately three years.  

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The FAA bill is one of the few must-pass pieces of legislation left on the congressional agenda this year. As such, it also represents an opportunity for lawmakers looking for a vehicle on which to attach pet issues.

Supporters of the bill said separating air traffic control from the FAA would modernize the nation’s aviation system and bring it on par with countries such as Canada that have already set up independent flight navigation systems. 

“The United States has led the world in aviation since pioneering this modern mode of transportation. We have the safest system in the world, and we will continue to do so under this bill,” said Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the transportation committee. “But our system is incredibly inefficient, and it will only get worse as passenger levels grow and as the FAA falls further behind in modernizing the system.”

The measure would spend about $17 billion per year on the FAA over the first three years while the independent air traffic control organization is being set up. Federal aviation spending would then drop to approximately $6 billion annually over the final three years to cover non-air traffic control functions at the FAA, according to GOP aides in the House.

Democrats quickly assailed the plan. 

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the transportation committee’s ranking member, said the proposal would “tear apart aviation programs, risk unnecessary duplication and complexity, and ultimately cost money for taxpayers and travelers.

“This privatization proposal gives a private corporation the power to tax the American public to pay for safe operations, and it hands over a public asset worth billions of dollars to a private corporation for free.”

DeFazio vowed to put forward “targeted amendments” to the bill that would address the “real problems” at the FAA.

The proposal is creating divisions in the airline industry.

The union that represents federal air traffic controllers on Wednesday endorsed splitting off U.S. flight navigation from the FAA, although it warned that “safety and efficiency must remain the top priorities.”

“After extremely careful review, consideration, and deliberation, we have reached a decision: NATCA supports this bill,” the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said.

But other aviation groups in Washington said the plan to separate air traffic control from the FAA amounts to a privatization of the nation’s flight navigation system.

“NATA cannot support the legislation’s proposal to create a federally chartered, not-for-profit air traffic control corporation,” National Air Transportation Association President Thomas Hendricks said in a statement. 

“A user-fee funded ATC corporation, controlled in perpetuity by a board of industry insiders, will place general aviation in constant peril, starve rural America of access to cutting-edge technology, and saddle the traveling public with ever increasing fees,” he continued. 

Still, most of the nation’s major airlines — with Delta a notable exception — are supporting the plan to create a new air traffic control organization.

The group that lobbies in Washington for most major carriers has rejected the idea that separating air traffic control from the FAA is equivalent to privatization. 

In a recent statement, Airlines for America argued the new system would be similar to those used in most other countries.

“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 group said. 

Smaller aviation groups that represent noncommercial flight operators have been more measured about the independent air traffic control proposal, however, saying that lawmakers should not rush a plan to separate U.S. flight navigation from the FAA despite claims about the success of similar systems in Canada and Europe. 

“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 noncommercial 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. 

The full text of the proposed FAA bill can be read here

This story was last updated at 5:55 p.m.