House to weigh plan to separate air traffic control from feds

The House Transportation Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on 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 three years.  

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.

ADVERTISEMENT
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 majority of this bill was developed in the same bipartisan manner as previous committee bills,” said Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the transportation committee.  “There have also been policy differences, and this hearing will give members an opportunity to discuss those differences and the merits of the legislation.”

The proposal to separate air traffic control from the FAA 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. 

The underlying funding bill 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 have assailed the plan to spin off air traffic control from the FAA. 

“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," Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the transportation committee’s ranking member, said last week. 

Most major airlines are supporting the independent air traffic control proposal, with the notable exception of Delta

Noncommercial flight operators have complained that the proposal to spin off air traffic control from the FAA would give too much power to commercial airlines, however. 

The House Transportation Committee is scheduled to hearing testimony from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, Airlines for America, the National Business Aviation Association and the Reason Foundation.