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Air Traffic Control Privatization Debated in Committee

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a hearing on February 10th to review the air traffic control reform proposal contained in the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act of 2016. Committee members, who are largely divided along party lines on the issue, questioned witnesses and offered contrasting views on the potential impacts of the reform. “I think we’re on the same page on many reforms and provisions [in the AIRR Act]. We do have an honest policy disagreement on the approach to fixing ATC,” said Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA). The Chairman, however, asserted that the “time is now” to undertake comprehensive reform and noted that “more than 50 other countries have successfully done this, with benefits across the board in safety, modernized systems, efficiency, service, and costs.”

Witnesses:

Mr. Paul Rinaldi, President, National Air Traffic Controllers Association

Mr. Nicholas E. Calio, President and Chief Executive Officer, Airlines for America

Mr. Ed Bolen, President and CEO, National Business Aviation Association

Mr. Robert Poole, Director of Transportation Policy, Reason Foundation

Committee Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D-OR) noted that the ATC reform provision is the major “stumbling block” that jeopardizes all the essential work that went into the larger bill. DeFazio raised numerous concerns about the proposal during the hearing, including the plan to turn over $30 to $50 billion in assets to the new air traffic control entity at no cost. “This would be the largest devolution of public assets” in modern history, said DeFazio. DeFazio favors more “targeted” reform to address procurement and personnel issues; and supports transitioning to mandatory spending of aviation tax revenue, insulating ATC from Congressional funding disruptions. DeFazio is expected to introduce multiple amendments to make changes to the bill during the markup scheduled for tomorrow. Aviation Subcommittee Ranking Member, Rick Larsen (D-WA) referred to the privatization proposal as a “science experiment with a lot of potential for things to go wrong.” And, he questioned why the Department of Defense (DOD) did not have a seat on the governing board given that they currently control almost 15 percent of the airspace.

Two Republicans, Reps. Don Young (R-AK) and Todd Rokita (R-IN) objected to the inclusion of user fees on part-135 operators-citing that this is, in fact, a segment of general aviation. Rep. Young also criticized the impact this proposal would have on Essential Air Service (EAS)-as the authority to charge overflight fees, which currently help support EAS, would be transferred to the new entity, forcing Congress to appropriate an additional $104 million per year to maintain current funding levels. Rep. Young told Chairman Shuster that if changes are not made to the bill, he will not support it. Rep. Rokita said he will file amendments to the bill to address his concerns, with the hope that they can find a way forward with the measure.

Representative John Mica (R-FL) voiced strong support for ATC reform, stating that he believes the U.S. is on “borrowed time” and has fallen behind the world in implementing much-needed NextGen technologies. Airlines for America (A4A) President and CEO, Nicholas Calio, testified that this bill will “make NextGen a reality instead of an unrealized dream. Time has shown that Congress cannot “fix” NextGen through annual appropriations bills, the FAA Reauthorization bill or additional oversight.”

NATCA President, Paul Rinaldi, said the US airspace is considered the gold standard for operations and safety but globalization and disruptive funding has resulted in diminished equipment and understaffing. “Restructuring must include a promise to maintain the controllers’ negotiated salaries and healthcare and put safety first; must have a stable, predictable funding stream and must improve on the status quo and provide service to all areas of the country.  NATCA supports the bill because we believe it does achieve these requirements,” said Rinaldi.

NBAA President, Ed Bolen was the lone witness in opposition to ATC reform. Bolen said “America’s aviation system is, and will remain, a monopoly. The question on the table is, who will effectively control this monopoly, and for whose benefit? H.R. 4441 would take control of the nation’s air traffic system away from the public’s elected representatives and give it away, for free, to a board dominated by big airlines.” Bolen acknowledged that while status quo is not sufficient, NBAA supports more targeted reform.

Chairman Shuster countered that it is a misconception to think this would be an airline-dominated board because they would only control 4 of the 10 seats. Bolen responded by saying that with the added board seat appointed by ALPA and a CEO to be appointed by this board, this is essentially effective control by the airlines. Representative Albio Sires (D-NJ) asked why the airlines should have 4 seats. A4A President Calio responded by saying  that “well to many people two general aviation [spots] seems like an awful lot given the use of the airspace and who pays what for the airspace … Frankly we thought we should’ve had more seats.”

Despite the division within the Committee, the Chairman is proceeding with the markup tomorrow and over 91 amendments have been filed. NASAO is reviewing all of the amendments and will continue to work with Committee members and staff in both the House and Senate in support of our association’s priorities.

Categories: News
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