Panel approves plan to spin off air traffic control

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Lawmakers on the House Transportation Committee on Thursday approved a controversial Republican plan to separate the nation’s air traffic control system from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The proposal, included in a funding measure for the FAA, calls for the creation a new nongovernmental organization that would take over air traffic control from the agency in three years. 

The measure was approved in a 33-26 vote that broke down largely along party lines after a marathon hearing in which lawmakers considered dozens of amendments.

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Supporters of the proposal to spin-off air traffic control from the FAA argued that an independent organization could manage the nation's aviation system better than the federal agency, which has come under fire for delays in its effort to modernize the technology that is used in flight navigation. 

“The AIRR [Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization] Act provides the transformational reform necessary to bring our antiquated air traffic system into the modern era, and allow America to lead the world again in aviation,” said Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation committee.  

“The Committee considered approximately 75 amendments during today’s meeting, and more than half of them were approved," Shuster continued. "Today’s open process led to many improvements to the legislation, and I look forward to moving ahead.”

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

"Despite the many positive reforms included in this bill that will support a strong aviation system and its workers, I remain concerned about the proposal to hand over our airspace to private control," said Rep. Rick LarsenRick LarsenUS wins aerospace subsidies trade case over the EU Business groups, lawmakers back trade case against China Dems urge treaty ratification after South China Sea ruling MORE (D-Wash.). 

"Running a science experiment with the most complex airspace in the world comes with a lot of risk, including the uncertain futures of thousands of workers at FAA," he continued.

The proposal to separate air traffic control from the FAA is included in a funding measure that would spend about $17 billion per year on the agency 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.

The measure 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 in the aviation industry. 

The top lobby for most major U.S. airlines has said the proposal to spin-off air traffic control from the FAA would bring the nation's aviation system in line with countries such as Canada, which have similar not-for-private flight navigation organizations set up.

“U.S. airlines connect the world like no other industry can and this legislation marks a historic step toward making our Air Traffic Control system the best it can be,” Airlines for America President Nicholas Calio said in a statement. 

“Delivering a more efficient system with proper governance, funding and accountability will bolster our nation’s first-rate safety record and make flying better – and at no additional cost to travelers," he continued. 

Critics said the proposal to spin-off air traffic control from the FAA is a "misguided policy" that would give too much power to airlines, however.

"Today we watched as over and over again Chairman Shuster refused to accept amendments to the AIRR Act that would give consumers and workers a fair seat at the table, implement protections against indiscriminate user fees on passengers and curb the power of the airlines over a private air traffic control board," Americans Against Air Traffic Privatization spokesperson Julia Alschuler said. 

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

Groups that represent noncommercial flight operators have also said the proposal would give too much power to major airlines.