GOP chairman hopes to spin off air traffic control under Trump

GOP chairman hopes to spin off air traffic control under Trump
© Greg Nash

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) is once again preparing to fight for an aviation bill that includes his controversial proposal to spin off air traffic control from the federal government.

A similar plan stalled on the House floor last year. But this time around, Shuster is hoping to have a powerful new ally in his corner: President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDems make history, and other takeaways from Tuesday's primaries Pawlenty loses comeback bid in Minnesota Establishment-backed Vukmir wins Wisconsin GOP Senate primary MORE.

“If we’ve got a president ... talking positive things about it, I think we’ve got a real great chance,” said Shuster, who was an early Trump supporter and chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

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Trump has not specifically spoken out about air traffic control, though he has long talked about the need to modernize the country’s “third-world airports,” raising hopes that he may have a sympathetic ear on the issue.

Shuster told The Hill that he has talked to the president-elect “a couple of times” about the idea of overhauling air traffic control, adding that Trump’s “response has been positive.”

But Shuster also emphasized that they still need to work out details once the new administration gets settled.

“We’re going to talk to them, make sure they’re comfortable, they understand it,” Shuster said. “The goal is to try to do as much as we can, but we want to move together with the administration.”

Lawmakers overseeing the nation’s transportation programs must reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) before the agency’s legal authority expires Sept. 30.

Congress ended up passing a short-term bill last summer after they fell short in a longer-term reauthorization. The main sticking point was Shuster’s plan to transfer air traffic control (ATC) operations from the FAA to a not-for-profit corporation. 

Supporters argue that ATC reform would modernize the U.S. aviation system and bring it in line with countries like Canada that have set up similar outside agencies for air traffic control. The government would still maintain oversight, but the entity would not be subject to the unpredictable appropriations process.

A recent inspector general report also shows that the FAA has struggled to implement its NextGen modernization program, which aims to establish a precise satellite-based surveillance system and digital data communications for air traffic controllers and pilots.

“You need to modernize it,” Shuster said. “We’ve spent billions of dollars over the last decade or two for a new system, a GPS-based system, and haven’t gotten it.”

But chief critics of the ATC spin-off have painted Shuster’s effort as an example of corporate welfare, since the nonprofit entity wouldn’t have to pay for a system that has cost the government tens of billions of dollars. They also say there is no evidence that the overhaul would improve safety or cut down costs.

The election “may have given proponents of air traffic control privatization hope that their proposal will have more success in the next Congress, but those same proponents have failed to answer the many serious questions regarding their plan,” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), ranking member on the Transportation panel, said in a statement. “Any proposal to overhaul the existing ATC system must be thoroughly vetted, not rushed through Congress just because the political landscape makes it easier.”

Shuster was able to muscle his proposal through committee last year — the farthest it has ever gone — but was unable to get a House floor vote amid opposition from his own party.

The plan’s fate this year may hinge on whether Shuster has Trump’s support and whether any Republican critics in Congress warm up to the idea of separating air traffic control.

GOP appropriators don’t like that the plan removes ATC from the congressional appropriations process, while Republican tax-writers are concerned it hands over the power to impose fees for the use of air traffic services to a nongovernmental agency.

“We’ll see whether there’s an appetite in the Congress this year to do something kind of bold,” Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneEx-Trump adviser: Shutdown 'not worst idea in the world' 74 protesters charged at Capitol in protest of Kavanaugh Senate clears 4B ‘minibus’ spending measure MORE (R-S.D.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, told reporters Wednesday. “I know that Chairman Shuster is very committed to it, and we will await his action on his side.”

“That’s what we tried to do last time,” Thune added, “but we’ve got an FAA bill we have to pass by Sept. 30.”