Trump's air traffic overhaul struggles to take off

Trump's air traffic overhaul struggles to take off
© Greg Nash

President Trump's plan to privatize air traffic control is struggling to get off the ground.

House lawmakers left town for the August recess without voting on the proposal, which is included in legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The plan would transfer the country’s air navigation system to a nonprofit corporation.

But the recess means the chamber will have less than a month to consider the bill and negotiate a final product with the Senate, since the FAA’s legal authority expires at the end of September.

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Failure to pass the legislation would be a big blow for the White House as it scrambles to score a legislative victory on Capitol Hill, especially after the GOP’s latest healthcare defeat.

“I wanted to pass it now,” a frustrated Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told The Hill before leaving town.

“If we had another week here, I think we’d have it on the floor next week. It’s just one of those things where it takes time for members to engage and understand.”

The long-term aviation package has been viewed as one potential area where Republican leadership could deliver a victory for the administration. It was also thought to be a far easier lift than healthcare or tax reform.

The FAA bills in both chambers contain a wide range of bipartisan airline consumer protections, language to address drone use and authorization for airport funding and other popular programs.

The House version also contains a proposal to separate air traffic control from the federal government. The idea has long been championed by the airline industry, but failed to gain traction in Congress last year.

Trump, however, jumped into the fight this year and came out strongly in support of the proposal, making it part of his broader push to modernize the country’s infrastructure.

He kicked off an infrastructure messaging week by signing formal legislative principles outlining the spinoff model during a ceremony at the White House last month.

“For too many years our country has tolerated delays at the airport, long wait times on the tarmac, and a slowing of commerce and travel that costs billion and billions of dollars,” Trump said in the East Room, standing alongside a number of airline executives, lawmakers, Vice President Pence and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

“Today we're proposing to take American air travel into the future, finally. We will launch this air travel revolution by modernizing the outdated system of air traffic control. It’s about time.”

The plan would transfer air traffic control operations to a private agency over three years “at no charge,” removing 30,000 FAA employees from the federal payroll.

The FAA would still maintain safety oversight, but the new entity would be in charge of air traffic control, be governed by a board of directors and have the power to collect user fees.

However, the plan has been divisive among Republicans. Appropriators are worried about giving up congressional oversight; rural lawmakers fear that general aviation users will lose access to the airspace or face higher fees; and defense hawks have raised national security concerns.

The plan was able to pass out of committee along a party-line vote last month, but – appearing to lack the support of the full chamber – has remained stuck on the sidelines since then.

The White House has tried to put some muscle behind the effort. The administration dispatched a high-ranking official to Capitol Hill to sell skeptical House Republicans on the idea, while other officials have been making personal phone calls to lawmakers.

“I think [the purpose of the meeting] was just to put that stamp of approval on what was gong on, and to suggest that if we have to twist some arms, that the White House will be engaged in it,” Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) said at the time.

Shuster has also been spotted working members during vote series and carrying around what looked like a whip list, while his office has been blasting out “dear colleague” letters and fact sheets to try to educate more members about the plan.

But a competing group of Republicans has also been actively lobbying their colleagues to oppose the proposal, hoping to torpedo the plan.

With little time on the calendar and an apparent lack of party consensus on the proposal, House leadership opted not to schedule a floor vote before the August recess.

Shuster, however, remains confident that momentum is on his side and believes they can get the bill over the finish line when they return in September.

But the House would still need to go to conference with the Senate, where a FAA bill that does not contain the spinoff proposal is also stalled.

Plus, lawmakers will be dealing with debt ceiling and spending legislation in September, when current government funding expires.

That seems to be stepping up the likelihood that lawmakers will have to pass a short-term extension for the FAA, which would doom efforts to privatize air traffic control this year.

“This issue will be kicked into September at the earliest. That will make [passing a long-term bill] problematic,” Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.) told The Hill on Thursday.  “The votes are not there, and that’s why it’s not being brought up. If it were close, you’d see a full court press. Instead, you’re seeing folks still trying to work and educate.”