The chief congressional proponent of privatizing the U.S.
air traffic control (ATC) system is vowing to press forward with the effort
even though the proposal was excluded from the Senate version of the FAA
reauthorization bill passed last month.
The seeming intransigence of House Transportation
Committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) concerning ATC privatization is further
fueling concerns about whether the two chambers of Congress will be able to
agree on FAA reauthorization before July 15, when the agency’s current
temporary funding expires.
The Senate passed its version of FAA reauthorization in
an overwhelming 95-3 vote on April 19. It is a broad but short-term bill that
would fund the FAA only through September 2017.
Among its measures, the bill would:
• Enhance security within portions of airports that are
outside TSA screening areas.
• Offer several consumer protections for airline
• Establish stricter registration requirements for drone
operators while promoting commercial drone use.
• Set new FAA procedures for certifying aircraft designs
Many of the Senate proposals are also addressed in
Shuster’s House bill, which was passed by the transportation committee in
February but stalled before reaching the House floor. Nevertheless, the
Pennsylvania Republican has unambiguously said he will continue pushing his own
version of the legislation.
“Transformational air traffic control reform is
absolutely necessary to end the unacceptable status quo at the FAA and to
ensure the future of America’s aviation system,” according to a statement
Shuster released after the Senate passed its version of the FAA
With the House transportation committee chairman drawing
such a clear line in the sand, some analysts predicted last week that
reauthorization has little chance of being passed during this congressional
“They’ll probably kick the can down the road until after
the election in November,” said Kenneth Button, a transportation economist and
public policy professor at the George Mason School of Policy, Government and
Button said that he instead expects Congress to a pass
another short-term extension of FAA funding, the third that it would have
passed since late last September.
But Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the Eno Center for
Transportation, said that Shuster’s position could turn out to be less
intractable than it appears. His proposal to shift management of ATC from the
FAA to a nonprofit corporation overseen by a board of stakeholders faces strong
opposition from Democrats. But it has also come under criticism from
conservative budget hawks, who worry that the measure would leave taxpayers on
the hook for major missteps by the nonprofit corporation. In addition,
Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee also oppose it.
The varied opposition has so far stalled the ATC
privatization proposal. And continued opposition, coupled with the approaching
July 15 deadline, could persuade Shuster to accept a compromise, Davis said,
especially since the Senate reauthorization would last for less than 18 months,
compared with the six years that his bill would encompass.
Underscoring Davis’ point, Shuster was expected to begin
discussions late last week with John Thune (R-S.D.), the lead sponsor of the
Senate’s FAA reauthorization.
“I don’t think he goes down with the ship,” Davis said of
Shuster and the ATC reform proposal. “I personally expect he’ll live to fight
again next year.”
Political realities, too, could force action on FAA
reauthorization before the July deadline. Despite his own pessimism about the
prospect, Button said that the Senate’s near unanimous support of its bill put
the House in a tough spot.
Meanwhile, Davis said he believes there is too much
pent-up demand for commercial and private drones for reauthorization to be
pushed aside entirely until the new Congress convenes in January. The demand,
he said, creates a certain sense of urgency for implementing new drone
regulations quickly and upgrading the FAA’s drone certification process.
The battle over privatizing air traffic control has been
pitched. Supporters, including Shuster and the trade organization Airlines for
America, argue that it would speed implementation of NextGen, the GPS-based
technology that is replacing the radar-based system currently in use in the
U.S. They also say it would remove ATC from the uncertainty of the highly
politicized appropriations process in Congress.
Opponents, which include Delta Air Lines and consumer
groups, argue that the process of reorganizing how the ATC is administered
would delay the implementation of NextGen and increase costs.
Among the consumer protections in the Senate
reauthorization bill is a measure requiring refunds for checked baggage that is
delayed; another that would enforce a standard method for airlines to display
ancillary fees on items such as baggage, seat assignments and ticket changes;
and a third that would trigger automatic refunds for services purchased but not
received, such as seat assignments.