House Republicans have pulled the plug on a controversial plan to separate the nation’s air traffic control system from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), The Hill has learned.
GOP leaders on the House Transportation Committee had pushed to create a new non-governmental organization that would have taken 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.
But aviation groups mobilized quickly against the plan, and Democrats argued that setting up a new flight navigation organization would amount to a privatization of the nation's airspace.
Republicans in the House are scrapping the proposal now in favor of a short-term measure to prevent an interruption in the FAA's funding, which is set to expire on March 31.
House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) insisted the broader effort to restructure the air traffic control system isn't over. He argued lawmakers simply hadn't seen a proposal like the one under debate.
"This is an ongoing process, and we will continue working to educate Members and address questions they have about the bill," he said in a statement. "The need for an extension was not a surprise, and details about the short-term measure are still being discussed.”
Major airlines that have pushed for more control of the air system would have had four of 11 seats on the proposed board, stoking fears they would have too much power.
The proposal exposed divisions in the aviation industry that were on display as the measure was debated by the House Transportation Committee.
"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 earlier this month.
"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."
But 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.
National Business Aviation Association President Ed Bolen said the plan "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."
"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 lined up in support of 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 during the recent hearing.
"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 the idea of spinning off air traffic control from the FAA is a risky experiment that could jeopardize the safety of the nation's aviation system.
"There is simply no compelling reason to change such a critical system that works so very well," Delta CEO Richard Anderson said in written testimony that was submitted for the record by Democrats on the panel.
"Our nation’s air traffic control system is too important—to public safety, economic growth, and national security—and working too well for such an experiment to be prudent," he continued.