U.S. House Dems Offer Alternative to Independent ATC

Jun 7, 2017 Issues: Transportation

Ain Online: U.S. House Dems Offer Alternative to Independent ATC

  • Kerry Lynch

House Democrats today unveiled an alternative proposal to the White House/House Republican plan for an independent air traffic control board, instead calling for a series of personnel and procurement reforms and the removal of the Airport and Airway Trust Fund from the constraints of the congressional appropriation process. Reps. Pete DeFazio (D-Oregon), the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Rick Larsen (D-Washington), the ranking member of the aviation subcommittee, announced the proposal, saying they have the co-sponsorship of every Democrat on the panel and would be reaching out to other Democrats and Republicans.

The proposal would take the trust fund revenues, which includes all the aviation excise taxes, “off budget” beginning in October. The balances of the trust fund, which currently are allocated through federal appropriations, would become completely available for use.

It also would address the inability for the FAA to take full advantage of personnel and procurement reforms granted to it in the 1990s. DeFazio noted that while the FAA had been offered reforms, its procurement and personnel decisions still have been subject to signoffs from the Department of Transportation and Office of Management and Budget.

The Democrat alternative further would elevate the FAA Management Advisory Council, requiring the FAA Administrator to respond in writing to each council recommendation and mandating that the agency eliminate “stovepipes,” thereby facilitating cross-utilization of staff.

DeFazio, a chief critic of the independent ATC organization proposal, expressed concerns that a transition to a new organization would stall progress. He disputed claims of ATC reform proponents that modernization is behind, charging that instead “the airlines are behind.” He noted that the U.S. has the necessary infrastructure to make ADS-B operational, but that the airlines have sought an extension in the time frame for their equipage to use ADS-B.

DeFazio further contended funding is not an issue because taxes can pay for 97 percent of the costs. But both DeFazio and Larsen acknowledged that problems with the system do exist, particularly the fits-and-starts of the congressional appropriations cycle. Their proposal is intended to address that, they said.

“If we truly want to fix the real problems facing the FAA today, the solution is simple: Congress can and should pass targeted reforms,” DeFazio said.

The bill might face some opposition from appropriations leaders, who in the past have criticized “off budget proposals,” DeFazio conceded. But the alternative, independent ATC, has the opposition of both the appropriations and tax writing committees, making off budget a more attractive alternative, he said.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania), the chief architect of the independent ATC proposal, responded to the Democrat alternative by saying that both sides agree that the current system is broken. “However, we disagree on how to fix the problem,” Shuster said. “[The Democrat alternative] rehashes years and years of ineffective congressional reforms aimed at allowing the FAA to act like a business and modernize the air traffic control system. If government is clearly the problem, and if exempting air traffic control service from virtually every government system, process and procedure is the offered solution, why keep it in the government at all?”

DeFazio and Larsen unveiled the proposal two days after the White House held an event to highlight the independent ATC concept and provide a more detailed look at how such a transition could be made.

While Democrats mount their opposition to the White House proposal, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao faced a skeptical Senate Commerce Committee today as lawmakers questioned the need for removing the ATC organization from the FAA and expressed concerns about the ramifications on rural communities and contract towers.

Speaking during a hearing the committee held on FAA reauthorization, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida), reiterated, “I am opposed to ATC privatization, no matter what form it might take. We currently have the safest air traffic control system in the world. Why risk that by handing the whole thing over to an untested, unproven entity?”

Several members of the committee on both sides of the aisle, including chairman John Thune (R-South Dak), along with Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi), Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) and Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), asked about both rural community and contract tower protections.

CASE MADE FOR PRIVATE OPERATION

Chao defended the proposal as providing the ATC organization the ability to cut through bureaucratic red tape for procurement and said in the long run, it will better protect rural communities and contract towers by more stable funding. She added that contract towers are more vulnerable to cuts under the current system, and while officials would want to protect them, she couldn’t guarantee their protection without reform. As for rural communities, she said, they are “most hurt by status quo.”

Chao also highlighted the user fee-funded aspect of ATC proposal, saying, “Fees charged to users of these services will support the new entity, and any surplus revenue will be reinvested to keep the system current. This is an improvement from today’s mix of aviation taxes that are not tied to the use of air traffic control services.”

While the Trump proposal did not address fees for general aviation operations—past proposals had included certain general aviation exemptions—Chao told the committee, “If this is a point that needs to be discussed, we are willing to do so.”

Thune reiterated that the committee would be working on a bipartisan basis to craft an FAA reauthorization bill. Thune in the past has been reluctant to move forward on a proposal that did not have a strong chance of passing in the Senate. However, he did say, “It is hard to ignore the many independent studies and reviews that document the flaws with the current structure,” and added he would monitor progress of the proposal in the House.

In the meantime, Thune said the Senate panel was not going to “wait forever” for the House to complete work, since there are a number of other issues that need to be addressed in a comprehensive reauthorization bill.

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