WASHINGTON – A plan to privatize the nation's air traffic control operations has hit turbulence in the House, raising questions about whether one of President Donald Trump's infrastructure priorities can survive.
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The concept of splitting off air traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration faces even longer odds in the Senate, but supporters were counting on backing from the president and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to move the legislation forward and keep prospects for privatization alive.
The bill to extend federal aviation programs was expected to come to a vote in the House as early as this week. But leadership has not yet scheduled a vote. The question is why.
"I think it's on life-support personally," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., disagrees. He said lawmakers are just now beginning to focus on the legislation and need some time to wade through the bill's many provisions that would affect airports and the traveling public in their home districts.
"So now they're sitting down and talking to us, trying to understand what they're hearing, what they're seeing, what's true and what's not true," Shuster said. "It's a process and the process always happens this way."
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Trump has endorsed privatization of air traffic control operations and the president's budget calls Shuster's bill "an excellent starting point."
The vast majority of Democratic lawmakers oppose efforts to split off air traffic control operations from the FAA, a move that would affect some 14,000 controllers and thousands more technicians and engineers. The agency would remain responsible for regulating aviation safety, including the work of the new company.
So, Republicans can only afford about two dozen defections. Cole said the bill won't get many votes from the Oklahoma delegation. He said the training center for air traffic control workers is in Oklahoma City and the center employees he has spoken with oppose privatization.
The union representing air traffic control workers has endorsed Shuster's bill. But aviation groups that often rely on smaller airports for business travel, recreation, pilot training and crop spraying oppose it, fearing that the new company running air traffic control operations would favor the commercial airlines over other interests.
"This plan is bad for rural America," said Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-La., who spoke on the House floor Monday.
To secure support, Shuster exempted general aviation flights from the user fees established to fund the new, non-profit company that would oversee air tariff control operations. He also expanded the board to make it harder for any one interest group to dominate. His bill also requires the government to review and approve any proposal from the new company to alter use of airspace in a way that might restrict access.
The changes helped win over Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., a pilot who has served as a leading voice for general aviation interests in Congress. Graves voted against last year's FAA bill that included privatization, but said he "got everything he wanted and then some" in the latest version, including more money for airport improvements. But Graves' conversion hasn't translated into support from general aviation groups such as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and the National Air Transportation Association, a trade group representing charter providers, flight training and other aviation companies. Dozens of general aviation groups have announced their opposition to the House bill and are pressing lawmakers to vote against it.
"They're afraid of the unknown," Graves said.