Aviation industry divided over ATC privatization
Tuesday, July 18, 2017
At the end of June, the U.S. House and Senate moved two forms of FAA reauthorization legislation through committee and one step closer to votes on their respective floors. With the battle for air traffic control (ATC) privatization apparently coming to a head — possibly within days — GA groups are unifying and firmly standing in opposition.
With congressional momentum plowing forward, and with a president who is now firmly behind the idea, just where does the aviation industry currently stand in the important narrative of ATC privatization?
Both houses of the U.S. Congress have written and introduced reauthorization bills. Both pieces of legislation share similarities, with the exception of one major difference: ATC privatization.
For the last two years, Republicans have been attempting to create a new nongovernmental organization that can take over ATC from the FAA. Supporters argued an independent ATC agency may be better capable of managing the nation's aviation system than the now-embattled FAA.
Citing the FAA's slow implementation of NextGen technology and reports of ineffective management, House Republicans last year — led by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Penn.) — introduced ATC privatization legislation that was ultimately shot down.
While the Republicans have maintained that the controversial plan to privatize the nation's ATC system still wouldn't receive the necessary support in the Senate, those in the House have not given up the fight. This year, the House Republicans introduced the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act (AIRR Act), which looks to have more steam than last year's version.
According to Shuster, this bill is an improvement on last year's offering for one reason: "My metric for saying it's improved is [that we've] gained support."
However, congressional support for the bill shouldn't be taken for granted — even among Shuster’s own party. While the Senate version of FAA reauthorization may be passed with little or no resistance, the House version may meet more obstacles thanks to its controversial measure.
GA doubling down
"Handing over our air traffic control system to the airlines would increase costs for all travelers, disproportionately hurt rural America and general aviation, and create a too-big-to-fail institution leaving taxpayers on the hook for bailouts," according to a statement by AOPA President Mark Baker. "General aviation is united against HR 2997, the 21st Century AIRR Act."
Sure enough, other general aviation groups — EAA, GAMA, Helicopter Association International, NATA and NBAA — signed a joint response to Shuster's six-year FAA reauthorization proposal. In the statement, the groups called for all parties involved to work harder to reach a consensus on improving ATC.
"After a thorough and detailed review of Chairman Bill Shuster's (R‐Pa.) proposal to remove our nation's air traffic control operations from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), we have concluded that these reforms, while well intentioned, will produce uncertainty and unintended consequences without achieving the desired outcomes," the statement reads.
"We believe Chairman Shuster has raised the issue of reform in a meaningful and thoughtful manner, and while we enjoy the safest most efficient air traffic control system in the world, we also believe that reforms, short of privatization, can better address the FAA's need to improve its ability to modernize our system. We have concluded that any structural and governance reforms that require protections for an important sector of users are fundamentally flawed."
While FAA reauthorization apparently hit a brick wall last year, this year things seem different. With the President Donald Trump firmly behind the idea of ATC privatization, the House bill may have more legs and a better chance of progressing through congressional votes.
Speaking at an East Room event in the White House last month, Trump outlined his ideas for overhauling the country's ATC system. The meeting was attended by Shuster, as well as other lawmakers and airline industry officials.
"We're proposing to take American air travel into the future, finally," Trump began.
In speaking on the proposed nongovernmental organization that would take over ATC from the FAA, Trump said: "This new entity will not need taxpayer money, which is very shocking when people hear that. ... [People] don't hear that too often."
Along with Trump, the FAA — which had refused to take sides throughout the debate — seems to have reversed this position and firmly joined the effort to push the House's bill.
"It's time to for the U.S. to join most of the industrialized world and separate its ATC system from the agency that also provides safety oversight," according to a memo from Chris Brown, assistant administrator for government and industry affairs at the FAA. "With major benefits and protections included in the AIRR Act, the general aviation community is best served by an air traffic control system operated by a separate entity governed by system users rather than bureaucrats in Washington."
Despite this new support, the battle for ATC privatization seems to be going nowhere. Now that both sides of the debate have firmly dug in their heels, the future of aviation and ATC may very well be up in the air.
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