A House Republican committee chairman called on lawmakers Wednesday to turn the nation's air traffic control operations over to a new, non-profit corporation, saying no other infrastructure change has as much potential to improve travel for the average American flyer.
President Donald Trump has also called for privatizing air traffic control operations, suggesting placing them under an "independent, non-governmental organization" to make the system more efficient while maintaining safety.
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Pennsylvania Rep. Bill Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told colleagues his top priority this year is to overhaul the Federal Aviation Administration along those lines. He said the effort he'll pursue will fund the new corporation through fees assessed for air traffic services and will free the operations from government dysfunction and the uncertainty of the annual appropriations process.
He said the FAA has been trying to put in place a high-tech system for air traffic controllers for nearly three decades, but progress has been incremental. Ultimately, he said, it makes sense to remove the FAA as a transportation service provider and maintain its role as a regulator of air safety. He said that would lead to a decrease in flight delays and ease congestion.
"The true risk lies in doing nothing," Shuster said.
But Shuster faces opposition from the committee's Democratic members and the union representing the technicians who install, maintain and support air traffic control systems.
They fear that turning financing decisions over to a corporation would subject the system to economic hardships and particularly could hurt flight operations at smaller airports.
Airlines have been lobbying vigorously for the changes Shuster seeks. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., pointed out they were not invited to testify Wednesday, alluding to recent controversies such as the dragging of a passenger off a United flight. He said their absence shows that supporters of privatization know Americans aren't interested in giving more control over to the airlines.
DeFazio said the biggest obstacle to updating air traffic systems has been the broken budget process in Congress and unstable funding from lawmakers.
The privatization debate has been going on for decades. The Clinton administration proposed moving air traffic control operations out of FAA to a corporation owned by the government in 1995. Dorothy Robyn, a special assistant to the president on economic policy, told lawmakers that only four nations at that time had moved traffic control operations outside of traditional government operations, and Clinton's proposal was "dead on arrival on Capitol Hill." Now, some 60 countries have transferred their air traffic control operations, she said.
"I think it is a mistake to view this proposal as ideological," Robyn said.
Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said the association will consider supporting a new entity to run air traffic control operations, but it cannot be a for-profit corporation.
He said the new system would also have to ensure that air traffic control workers' pay and benefits are protected, and that it continue to serve rural communities, which are worried that privatization would lead to less money for their airports. Rinaldi's group backed Shuster's privatization bill last year.
"The last thing we want to do is create a system that's unfair to different users," Shuster told reporters after the hearing.
The congressman said he expects the committee to hold one or two more hearings before voting on a bill. A similar effort stalled last year, but Shuster is counting on an "engaged" White House to enhance prospects this year.