Air traffic control spin-off gets turbulent reception

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Lawmakers on the House Transportation Committee clashed on Wednesday over a controversial Republican plan to separate the nation’s air traffic control system from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

GOP leaders on the panel pushed during a hearing to create a new nongovernmental organization that would take over air traffic control from the FAA in three years. 

They argued an independent air traffic control agency could manage the nation's aviation system better than the FAA, which has come under fire for delays in its effort to modernize the technology that is used in flight navigation. 

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"I believe that the status quo is unacceptable, and that real change is necessary," said Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), the panel's chairman. 

"Delays, congestion, and inefficiency cost our economy $30 billion a year," he continued. "One billion passengers a year will be flying in another decade or so. Without real improvement, the system is only going to get worse." 

Democrats on the panel fiercely resisted the proposal to separate air traffic control from the FAA, arguing that setting up a new flight navigation organization would amount to a privatization of the nation's aviation system. 

"Spinning off the Air Traffic Organization while leaving the rest of the FAA’s critical safety programs to the perils of the General Fund, shutdowns, and sequestration is irresponsible," said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), citing a Government Accountability Office report released on Wednesday that labeled the plan to spin off air traffic control "high-risk." 

"Let me be clear: I am certainly not in denial that the FAA suffers from ailments that must be fixed," he added. "The agency — the entire agency, not just the air traffic control system — must have stable, predictable funding and procurement and personnel processes that work." 

The proposal to separate air traffic control from the FAA, included in a new funding measure for the agency, calls for the creation of a new flight navigation organization that would be managed by a board of directors composed of aviation industry representatives. Major airlines that have pushed for more control of the air system would have four of 11 seats on the proposed board, stoking fears they would have too much power.

The proposal has exposed divisions the aviation industry that were on display during Wednesday's hearing. 

"The current aviation system has served us well until recent years. Unfortunately, we no longer have a stable or predictable funding stream and this uncertainty has caused many serious problems for the system," National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi told the panel.

"We all remember the disruptions we experienced in 2013 with sequestration," he continued. "The FAA scaled down all modernization projects. The agency looked at closing 238 air traffic control towers and tried to close 149 of them, not for safety, but in an effort to save money." 

Groups that represent noncommercial flight operators told lawmakers that the proposal to spin off air traffic control from the FAA would give too much power to major airlines, however. 

"H.R. 4441 would take control of the nation’s air traffic system away from the public’s elected representatives and turn it over to the big airlines," National Business Aviation Association President Ed Bolen said.

"The public airspace belongs to the public and it should be run for the benefit of the public," he said. "This is a sweeping transfer of authority. It's breathtaking in its magnitude and it's potentially deadly in its consequences." 

Most major airlines are supporting the proposal to separate air traffic control from the FAA — with the notable exception of Delta

The group that lobbies for most major carriers in Washington, Airlines for America (A4A), said an independent air traffic control structure is long overdue. 

"We know what needs to be done: ATC reform has been debated and analyzed in the United States for decades while being successfully implemented in other countries," A4A President Nicholas Calio said. 

"For years, there has been widespread recognition among U.S. policymakers and stakeholders of the need for modernization of air traffic control services," he continued. "This recognition is thoroughly bipartisan. Modernization is not about politics; it is about formulating and implementing sound public policy for all who depend on air service." 

Delta, however, submitted testimony to the House Transportation Committee that warned of risks from the spin-off. 

"Delta opposes privatizing U.S. air traffic control or any other attempt to remove air traffic control services from the Federal Aviation Administration," Delta CEO Richard Anderson said in written testimony that was submitted for the record by Democrats on the panel. 

"Advocates describe privatization as a cure-all for what ails the FAA’s management of air traffic control services," Anderson continued. "But the truth is that it carries serious risks, offers speculative benefits, and is not necessary." 

Lawmakers are scheduled to continue consideration of the independent air traffic control proposal on Wednesday. The House Transportation Committee is planning to hold a hearing on the broader FAA funding bill on Thursday.

—This report was updated at 11:49 a.m.