WASHINGTON – A Republican-led Senate committee on Thursday backed an aviation bill that omits one of President Donald Trump's goals — turning air traffic control operations over to a private company.
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The legislation would increase spending for airport improvements and would protect passengers from being forcibly removed from a plane once they are approved to board.
The plan to reauthorize federal aviation programs through Sept. 30, 2021, has support from Republicans and Democrats, and passed the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee by voice vote.
Still, a major fight is brewing over a provision that would expand the type of training that co-pilots could receive to meet the 1,500-hour requirement necessary to hold a pilot license.
A House panel this week approved legislation that would split off air traffic control operations from the Federal Aviation Administration — at odds with the Senate version.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the committee chairman, said he was "open-minded about the idea," but appreciates that concerns existed, so the proposal would be considered more when the bill advances to the full Senate.
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Several Republicans fear the impact on rural airports from privatization, and many Democrats oppose the change.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., was adamant about opposition to privatization, saying that no matter how hard various interests pressed, the proposal lacks broad support at the committee level and in the full Senate. He described the proposals as "simply not there as a sound idea for the safety of travelers, taxpayers, the economy and the security of this country."
The union representing air traffic controllers supports a split from the FAA. In opposition are various aviation groups that often rely on smaller airports for business travel, recreation, pilot training and crop spraying. They fear the board operating the nonprofit company could be controlled by the major airlines and that the smaller airports would become a lesser priority.
On pilot training, Thune said his proposal could help ease a shortage for regional airlines. Democrats warned that the change would undermine safety.
Congress directed improved pilot training and experience requirements in 2010 after a crash near Buffalo, New York, that killed 49 people on the aircraft and one person on the ground. Since those rules were enacted, there have been zero fatalities on U.S. passenger airliners.
Thune said the law already allows some academic training to be counted toward the 1,500 hour, flight time requirement.
"This provision would simply allow for other quality training opportunities over potentially less valuable amassing of flight hours," Thune said.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said any accident that occurred with a pilot who had received training through the new standards "will be on us."
Nelson told committee members that he was instructed by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., that if the bill contained Thune's proposal when it reached the Senate floor, he would use every parliamentary tactic available to block it.
The Air Line Pilots Association International opposes Thune's proposal. It said his amendment would allow for "pilot puppy mills."
"These types of second-rate institutions and the substandard pilots they were producing were exactly the reason Congress mandated improvements in pilot training," the union said.
Thune said after the vote that he's willing to work with Democrats to ease their concerns.
"But I do think that we have a serious crisis brewing in rural areas of the country, smaller communities and smaller airports," Thune said regarding a shortage of certified pilots.
One area where lawmakers are united is in providing passengers with more protections from the actions of the airlines, particularly to prevent the forced removal of passengers unless they pose a health or safety risk. That's a direct response to a United Airlines passenger who was violently dragged off a flight out of Chicago earlier this year.
The bill also would eliminate the caps on compensation passengers can receive if they are involuntarily bumped from a flight.
On Twitter, reach Kevin Freking at https://twitter.com/APkfreking