GOP Senator doubts aviation bill will include Trump’s air traffic control plan

GOP Senator doubts aviation bill will include Trump’s air traffic control plan
© Greg Nash

A top GOP senator doubts that President Trump’s contentious proposal to separate air traffic control from the federal government will be included in a must-pass aviation bill this year.

Trump formally called for transferring the country’s air navigation system to a nonprofit entity on Monday as part of a broader push to modernize the country’s aging infrastructure.

The White House said the model would speed up efforts to update air traffic control technology, reduce flight delays and remove operations from the financial and political uncertainty of Congress.

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The administration intends to move the spinoff plan separately from a $1 trillion infrastructure package but said it’s up to Congress how they want to tackle both initiatives.

The spinoff proposal’s best place for consideration is in an upcoming reauthorization for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), whose legal authority expires at the end of September.

But Sen. Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad Republicans fear backlash over Trump's threatened veto on Confederate names Senate rejects Paul proposal on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan MORE (R-Okla.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works subcommittee on transportation and infrastructure, said it’s unlikely to be apart of the FAA bill because “it has become very controversial.”

“We’ve attempted to take things that are controversial out of the FAA reauthorization,” he told reporters Tuesday.

Inhofe said he wants to see some changes made to the air traffic control plan, but declined to offer further details.

He added that he thinks the spinoff proposal “would be best handled separately.” It seems unlikely that Trump's plan would have any better shot at success if it were left out of the FAA reauthorization measure, however, unless the politics surrounding the thorny issue change.

A similar spinoff model was included in a long-term FAA bill last year but stalled on the House floor amid opposition from Democrats and GOP tax-writers and appropriators. There was even less support for the idea in the Senate.

One of the chief concerns, particularly among rural Republicans, is whether the interests of general aviation users and rural communities will be adequately protected and represented if a corporation is in charge of the country’s air traffic control system.

Some GOP lawmakers are also worried about granting a nongovernmental entity the power to collect fees, especially without any congressional oversight.

“Proposals to privatize air traffic control threaten the reliable transportation options provided by small airports and the general aviation community for millions of Americans. All but our largest airports nationwide stand to be hurt by this proposal,” said Sen. Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranWatchdog accuses Commerce of holding up 'Sharpiegate' probe report Senate Democrats push federal agencies to combat coronavirus scams and robocalls Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Mayor Quinton Lucas MORE (R-Kan.).

“Privatization eliminates the chance for Congress and the American people to provide oversight, creates uncertainty in the marketplace and is likely to raise costs for consumers.”

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao will have an opportunity to sell skeptical lawmakers on Trump’s air traffic control vision when she testifies in front of Senate and House panels this week.

But so far, key Republicans who haven’t been keen on the idea have shown little sign of warming up to the proposal, despite the ringing endorsement from the White House.

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneClash looms over next coronavirus relief bill Trump second-term plans remain a mystery to GOP Republicans fear backlash over Trump's threatened veto on Confederate names MORE (R-S.D.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, agreed that the FAA has failed in its modernization efforts but warned that “getting a bill to President Trump's desk will require bipartisan support as well as a consensus among the aviation community on a way forward.”

And Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntState and local officials beg Congress to send more election funds ahead of November Clash looms over next coronavirus relief bill Senate Democrats urge Pompeo to ensure Americans living overseas can vote in November MORE (R-Mo.), chairman of the Transportation subcommittee on aviation operations, echoed a similar sentiment.

“On the air traffic control system, the general aviation community, the small rural airports, the major carriers and the air traffic controllers themselves all have to feel that they are, and need to be, involved in that discussion,” Blunt told reporters Tuesday. “And we’ll be doing that over the next six weeks or so as we put that FAA bill together.”

In the House, transportation leaders are pushing ahead with an FAA bill that includes language to separate air traffic control from the government.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), a longtime proponent of the spinoff plan, said he is aiming to mark up legislation by the end of June and have it passed by the end of the summer.

"The Senate, of course, moves a lot slower. I believe there's some support over there for it. But the Senate is a very different body," Shuster told Bloomberg TV. "The appetite in the House is much better for it, but we're gonna find out as we move this through the process."