Democrats pitch alternative to FAA privatisation

Jun 7, 2017 Issues: Transportation

Flight Global: Democrats pitch alternative to FAA privatisation

  • Jon Hemmerdinger

US Democrat lawmakers released a bill on 7 June aimed at stabilising the Federal Aviation Administration's funding without stripping it of air traffic control (ATC) management.

The bill, called the Aviation Funding Stability Act, comes as a response to a plan supported by President Donald Trump that would place ATC under management of a newly-created private organisation.

The Democrats' legislation would ease restrictions on money in the Airport and Airways Trust Fund, which provides the majority of the FAA's funding, according to documents released by lawmakers on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The bill, introduced by Congressman Peter DeFazio, would accomplish that goal by making the fund's disbursements not subject to appropriations or federal budget cuts known as sequestration.

It would take effect 1 October, the first day of the 2018 fiscal year.

"The bill takes the Airport and Airway Trust Fund off budget, and ensures that the revenues collected from flying passengers… are invested in the aviation system," say documents released by lawmakers. "All Trust Fund revenues and the Trust Fund’s uncommitted cash balance are immediately available to be invested in the aviation system."

"The introduction of this bill shows that Democrats recognise there is need for reform at the FAA," Congressman Rick Larsen, a bill co-sponsor, says during a press briefing on 7 June.

Larsen adds that the FAA has already accomplished notable gains in modernising airspace.

"Everybody should recognise that implementation of technology to make our airspace more efficient is happening," he says.

The Trust Fund is composed of money collected through fees and taxes paid by passengers. That money pays for ATC operations and upgrades, safety inspections and airport investments, according to the FAA.

The agency's website says the fund provided 88% of its operations funding in fiscal year 2015. The fund had a balance of $14.8 billion at the beginning of fiscal year 2017, says the FAA.

Currently, Congress must authorise collection and disbursement of money in the Trust Fund. "If the FAA's authorisation were to expire without an extension, then the agency would be unable to spend any revenues allocated from the Trust Fund," says the FAA's website.

Democrats have positioned their plan as an alternative to a proposal from Republicans and airlines that would create a private ATC organisation.

DeFazio says privatisation would jeopardise safety and disrupt ongoing NextGen improvements. It would prioritise investment in large airports at the expense of smaller communities, which would see air service cuts, say documents from DeFazio's office.

Airlines and their trade group Airlines for America, however, say the industry is better prepared than the bureaucratically-hamstrung FAA to modernise US airspace.

The industry found a champion in Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, who introduced a privatisation bill in 2016. But Shuster's bill stalled in Congress.

On 5 June, however, Trump publicly endorsed Shuster's bill, calling the existing ATC structure an "ancient, broken, antique, horrible system that doesn't work".

Delta Air Lines has notably opposed privatisation, calling instead for the aviation industry to support the FAA's modernisation efforts.

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