House transportation committee chairman says he'll propose spinning off air traffic control

WASHINGTON – The chairman of the House transportation committee said Monday he’ll introduce a bill that takes control of air traffic operations away from the government and places it under the control of a non-profit corporation run by airlines and other segments of the aviation industry.

Keeping air traffic operations under government control would be “the surest road to failure,” Rep. Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, told a Washington Aero Club luncheon.

Since the dawn of aviation, the U.S. has moved more people and goods by air than any other nation, “but I believe we’re on the brink of losing our lead,” he said. “It’s questionable whether our (air traffic) system is capable of just sustaining current demands — delays already cost passengers and the economy $30 billion a year. But, there’s no question whether this system can handle the growth that’s coming. It can’t.”

The Federal Aviation Administration has been hampered in recent years by government-wide budget cuts. Two years ago, air traffic was snarled at airports across the country for days after budget cuts resulted in the furlough of some controllers.

The FAA has also been working for 10 years on transitioning from a radar-based air traffic control system to one based on satellite technology, but there’s no completion in sight, Shuster said. A Government Accountability Office survey of airline and other aviation industry officials found that very few believe the agency is capable of achieving its goals for a new air traffic system.

Privatization “will make flying and the time it takes to get from one place to another much better than it is now because it will give us a modern air traffic control system,” said Nick Calio, head of Airlines for America, a trade association for major airlines.

Controllers are keeping an open mind on the proposal but want to see the details, said Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

“The details really do matter,” he said.

Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the senior Democrat on the committee, said he has “a number of serious concerns about the constitutionality, the national security implications, and the logistical challenges of separating the system.”

Airlines have been heavily lobbying Congress to give them a greater say in air traffic operations and how they are paid for. The non-profit corporation would be run by a board that would include airlines, private plane owners, and labour unions, among others.

The FAA would still set safety standards and be responsible for enforcing them.

Currently, air traffic control operations are financed through a series of taxes and fees on airline tickets and aviation fuels. Airlines have long wanted to move to a “user fee” system based on takeoffs and landings, but have been opposed by private plane owners who fear such a system will require them to pay a larger share of the costs for operating the $10 billion annual air traffic control system.

Private aircraft owners have also expressed concern that the board would be dominated by big airlines and the large airports that service them. They say they fear that with air travel increasing, private planes will be pushed out of large and medium-sized airports in large metropolitan areas to make room for more airline flights.

Shuster also said the bill, to be introduced this month, will require the FAA to delegate more responsibility to aircraft, engine and other aviation manufacturers for safety oversight of their products’ design and manufacture. Some manufacturers have complained of long delays in getting the FAA’s approval to make their products. FAA approval is required for every aircraft design and the manufacture of each plane and piece of equipment. The agency already delegates a lot of that responsibility to designated employees of the manufacturer who are overseen by regulators.

Earlier this year, Shuster acknowledged having “a personal and private relationship” with an airline lobbyist and said he never considered recusing himself from the panel’s work on aviation legislation.


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