House panel unveils bill to spin off air traffic control

House panel unveils bill to spin off air traffic control
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A House panel unveiled a long-term aviation bill on Wednesday that includes a contentious proposal to separate air traffic control from the federal government, as well as new consumer protections inspired by a passenger being violently dragged off a United Airlines flight earlier this year.

The legislation, which would reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for six years, includes a series of key changes from last year’s spinoff proposal that are designed to win support from critics who previously opposed a similar effort to break apart the agency.

“I believe this bill improves upon the bill we put forth in the last Congress,” Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told reporters. “My metric for saying it improved is we gained support going through this process.”

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Shuster said the measure will get a committee vote next Tuesday, with the hope of bringing it to the floor in mid-July. Lawmakers are up against a tight timeline, as the FAA’s legal authority expires at the end of September.

The House FAA bill would dramatically shift air traffic control operations over three years by transferring the country’s air navigation system to a nonprofit corporation, which would be governed by a board of directors and have the power to impose user fees. The FAA would still maintain safety oversight, however.

Shuster has long been a champion of the idea, which President Trump has also endorsed as a way to speed up long-stalled modernization efforts by removing operations from the unpredictable appropriations process.

But the spinoff proposal stalled last year amid opposition from GOP tax-writers and appropriators concerned about giving up their congressional oversight and from rural lawmakers, who fear that general aviation users and rural airports would not be adequately protected and represented under the model.

Under the new version, all general aviation users would be exempt from any user fees imposed by the new entity and airlines would get fewer seats at the table than under the previous proposal.

Shuster said the spinoff proposal doesn’t exactly “mirror” the set of legislative principles signed by Trump earlier this month, but took many of the White House’s suggestions into consideration.

“We’ve made significant changes to the board. The board is more transparent than it was,” Shuster said, noting that they've added Rep. Sam GravesSamuel (Sam) Bruce GravesActing FAA chief defends agency's Boeing 737 Max safety certification Thirty-four GOP members buck Trump on disaster bill Dem lawmaker calls for gas tax increase to help pay for infrastructure package MORE (R-Mo.), "who’s the voice of [general aviation] in Congress.”

Graves, a pilot, was one of the few Republican no votes on the spinoff proposal last year and worked to win concessions from Shuster this year.

The 13-member board, which would be appointed by users of the system, would include three seats represented by the airlines, as opposed to four, while general and business aviation would each get one seat. Trump’s plan would have given two seats to the airlines.

 

The rest of the board would be represented by government, airports, air traffic controllers, commercial pilots and two more members picked by the group. And the airline representation was separated into three groups – passenger, cargo and regional carriers – to further ensure a diverse board makeup.

“If the governance is right, I believe this will be a success,” Shuster said. “We’ve gone to great lengths to make sure to listen to everybody and make sure we have a board that’s balanced, so not any one group can claim they dominate it.”

While Graves is supportive of the new proposal, it’s unclear whether outside general aviation groups will warm up to the idea or whether the new changes could alienate others groups who had been previously on board with Shuster’s proposal.

The measure could also run into opposition from the Senate, where lawmakers have already said their FAA reauthorization will not break apart the FAA, citing a lack of support for the spinoff idea.

But Shuster brushed aside concerns over the Senate bill, saying the chambers could hash out those differences in conference.

The House legislation also contains new consumer protections, including language to prevent airlines from involuntarily removing passengers from their seats once they have already boarded the aircraft.

The provision comes after a passenger was violently dragged off a United flight earlier this year, which ignited an international firestorm and prompted a wave of congressional hearings and bills.

Legislation to prevent involuntarily bumping was one of the measures that had gained that most steam.

Other consumer protections in the bill include banning voice calls during commercial flights, requiring large and medium airports to provide private rooms in every terminal for nursing mothers and requiring airlines to clearly specify how they will accommodate passengers in the event of widespread computer outrages.

The House’s FAA reauthorization also works to safely integrate drones into the national airspace. The bill establishes an air carrier certificate for operators of small unmanned aircraft and requires a federal assessment of the small drone registration system.

The legislation also would remove bureaucratic hurdles for airports in using the fees they collect from passengers to make facility upgrades; maintain all contract towers; streamline the FAA certification process; and provide robust funding for the Airport Improvement Program.

It also provides the FAA new tools to address noise and environmental issues, such as requiring FAA to study health impacts of overnight flight noise.

--This story was updated at 1:55 p.m.