Members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee heard widely differing perspectives on proposed FAA reauthorization legislation at a sometimes tense Feb. 10 hearing that lasted nearly four hours. While virtually every speaker agreed that FAA reform is needed, there were sharp divides over plans to create a separate federally chartered not-for-profit entity to manage air traffic control functions outside of the FAA.
In opening the hearing, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the committee, cited cost overruns, operational inefficiencies, delays in modernization, and even congressional interference as reasons to remove ATC functions from the FAA in a model similar to that used in Canada. Shuster emphasized that the FAA would maintain control of the airspace and safety regulation authority under his plan, while ATC operations would be managed by the outside entity.
But in his own opening remarks Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), ranking member of the committee, warned that the proposal to separate ATC from the FAA could jeopardize all the other provisions of reauthorization legislation, including certification reforms, drone integration, safety initiatives, and more. DeFazio warned of a “potential morass” and called the proposal the “largest devolution of public assets to a private interest” in the history of America if not the world. He added that the legislation should not be rushed through without adequate discussion and implied that holding a single hearing with just four witnesses one day before a planned markup was insufficient.
Among those testifying before the committee was National Business Aviation Association President Ed Bolen, who warned that privatizing ATC would amount to a “breathtaking” transfer of power that would put the transportation system and the American public at the mercy of big airlines. Likening the proposal to “putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop,” Bolen raised concerns that the airlines would have effective control of the 11-member governing board of the proposed air traffic organization and would not act in the best interests of all members of the public or protect access to airspace and small airports.
In response to questions from Shuster, Bolen said that strengthening the funding stream, passing a long-term authorization bill, improving management performance and accountability, and reforming certification processes could all help address issues with the FAA.
“Our members fly all over the world and so they use all of those air traffic systems and to a member they believe that flying in the U.S. is the best system in the world,” Bolen said. “But they are very frustrated with other parts of the FAA—the approval parts, the certification parts.
“We have an opportunity in this bill to address what is broken in the FAA. So we’re focusing on the wrong part of the FAA in this bill.”
But other witnesses disagreed, speaking in favor of privatizing ATC as way to modernize the system, improve efficiency, and increase funding certainty. Supporting ATC privatization were Airlines for America President Nicholas Calio, National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi, and Robert Poole, director of transportation policy for the Reason Foundation.
The hearing, which included several tense exchanges between Shuster and DeFazio, began moments after opponents of privatization gathered on Capitol Hill for a news conference hosted by DeFazio. At the event, an advocacy coalition known as Americans Against Air Traffic Privatization delivered a petition carrying 130,000 signatures opposing the plan to separate ATC functions from the FAA.
Also shortly before the hearing began, the Government Accountability Office released an 18-page report outlining a long list of transition issues that would need to be addressed in any move to create a separate ATC organization, including transferring assets, protecting access to airspace, human capital, setting fees and charges, and separating safety regulation functions from ATC.
The bill is scheduled for markup by the T&I Committee Feb. 11. The markup process gives committee members the opportunity to present amendments before voting to pass the legislation to the full House for its consideration. Several lawmakers, including DeFazio and Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), have said they plan to present amendments during the markup. Another chance to introduce amendments to the bill will take place when the full House takes up the legislation. No timeline has been set for that step, and it is not yet known whether the Senate plans to offer its own proposal for FAA reforms. Current FAA authorization expires March 31, making it unlikely that the House and Senate will agree on final legislation before the deadline and setting the stage for another extension to keep the FAA operating.