Air traffic control plan faces tough fight ahead

Air traffic control plan faces tough fight ahead
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Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) is vowing to push ahead on his controversial plan to spin off air traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman survived a tough primary challenge this week, and is moving on to his next fight: muscling his proposal through Congress.

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Shuster signaled he isn't backing down, even after the Senate overwhelmingly passed a reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration without his contentious plan earlier this month.

“We will take a look at the completed product, but in the House, we will continue to push forward with the AIRR Act,” Shuster said in a statement.

The House Transportation Committee advanced a reauthorization bill in February with language to separate the nation’s air traffic control system from the FAA. Supporters say the reform would modernize the U.S. aviation system and bring it in line with countries like Canada that have set up similar nonprofit outside agencies for air traffic control.

An aide for Shuster said the lawmaker is having discussions with Democrats and Republicans in both chambers about the air traffic control proposal.

Shuster and Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenate passes .5 billion border bill, setting up fight with House Senate GOP to defeat proposal requiring approval for Iran attack Senate GOP aims to jam House Democrats on border fight MORE (R-S.D.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, spoke by phone on Thursday about the way forward on FAA.

Shuster said during the call that the House would need a few weeks to determine its course. Thune emphasized the need to pass a full reauthorization instead of another short extension, according to a GOP aide.

But key appropriators and tax-writers in the House say they haven't talked with Shuster about how he plans to move forward.

Here are the biggest roadblocks in the way of Shuster's plan to create a new organization to take over air traffic control.

Appropriators

Top Senate appropriators have come out swinging against the proposal because it would remove air traffic control from oversight through the congressional appropriations process.

Report language attached to the Senate’s Transportation, Housing and Urban Development fiscal 2017 spending bill – which was approved by the full committee last week – said the panel would bar any federal funding for separating air traffic control.

"The attempt to remove the air traffic control system from the FAA is fraught with risk, could lead to uncontrollable cost increases to consumers, and could ultimately harm users of and operators in the system,” the report says.

Appropriators across the Capitol have expressed similar concerns, writing in a letter to leadership earlier this year that they would oppose privatization efforts.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, said his panel hasn’t decided whether its spending bill would include language to prohibit privatization.

But he has acknowledged “it’s no secret that some of us have some serious concerns.” Diaz-Balart said Thursday he has expressed those concerns to Shuster in the past, but they have not discussed the plan recently.

Tax-writers

The spin-off plan could also run into problems with congressional tax-writers.

After the Transportation Committee approved its FAA bill, the House Ways and Means Committee reserved its authority to weigh in on the measure.

Tax-writers want more details about privatization, since it would hand over the power to impose fees for the use of air traffic services to a nongovernmental agency.

“We’ll be sitting down with Chairman Shuster and others to talk about the path forward on this side,” Ways and Means Chairman Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyDemocrats give Trump trade chief high marks Democrats talk up tax credits to counter Trump law House panel approves bills on tax extenders, expanding tax credits MORE (R-Texas) said on Thursday. “Probably the week after recess.”

Airport security

Lawmakers are eager to quickly pass new airport security protections following last month's terrorist attacks on a Brussels airport and subway station and with long lines expected at airports this summer.

Congress has cleared a series of short-term patches to extend FAA’s legal authority into July. But now there's pressure to avoid another clean authorization and take up a Senate-passed bipartisan bill loaded up with consumer and security protections.

The Senate’s FAA reauthorization bill includes language requiring airlines to offer refunds for lost or delayed bags, expanding the Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck program and beefing up airport security.

“I do think that all the good policy that’s included in this bill with respect to security will make it more attractive for them to act,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) told reporters. 

The clock

Legal authority for current FAA programs expires July 15, and the House has three weeks of recess before then, giving Shuster little time to work out any kinks.

Congress could advance another stopgap measure with the hopes of hashing out a long-term reauthorization after the August recess, but lawmakers will likely be occupied with funding the government and campaigning for the November elections.

Shuster may have another timing incentive to sideline his spin-off plan until next year: The Senate’s bill only reauthorizes FAA until fiscal 2017, meaning lawmakers will have the opportunity to again weigh in on the issue soon.