Old Divide Remains as Competing Aviation Bills Approach Runway

Air-traffic-control reform remains a nonstarter with rural senators, making a compromise unlikely.

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
June 26, 2017, 8 p.m.

Even with the backing of the White House, a plan to take air-traffic controllers out of government hands doesn’t look ready to move through Congress.

The House and Senate will each hold committee votes on Federal Aviation Administration bills this week, showing just how far apart the two chambers are when it comes to the controversial air-traffic-control plan. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster’s six-year bill follows through on President Trump’s proposal to create an independent air-traffic-control board.

The Senate, meanwhile, steers clear of the issue entirely in its four-year bill, signaling just how difficult it could be to find middle ground ahead of a Sept. 30 deadline.

Under Shuster’s plan, air-traffic control would be taken out of the FAA’s hands and put under a nonprofit board made up of airline executives, airport officials, air-traffic controllers, and government officials. That, he has said, would make the board more nimble at integrating new technology and free the safety network from the lurches of government funding. The program would be funded through user fees.

After falling short last year, the plan has new momentum ahead of a markup Tuesday. The White House made it one centerpiece of its “Infrastructure Week,” earning the support of key House leaders. After the proposal was panned by the general-aviation community and rural legislators, Shuster made significant changes—general-aviation users would be exempt from user fees, and the share of major airlines on the oversight board has been significantly reduced to keep them from monopolizing decisions—that brought the endorsement of Rep. Sam Graves, who voted it down last year.

Shuster even has two Democrats—Reps. Colleen Hanabusa and Kyrsten Sinema—on board, although neither is on the Transportation Committee.

But for all of that momentum, it’s still possible the bill won’t even make it through the House. Committee Democrats, led by ranking member Peter DeFazio, have a competing proposal that would separate the Airport and Airway Trust Fund from the budget to ensure it is not affected by funding issues and would elevate an existing government-industry panel to address strategic issues around air-traffic management. DeFazio will introduce the measure as an amendment at Tuesday’s markup.

Even some key House Republicans aren’t on board. Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen “remains concerned” with Shuster’s bill, according to a spokesman, because it would rob Congress of the power of the purse over air-traffic control. Opposition from Republicans stopped Shuster’s FAA bill from even reaching the floor last year.

And that’s all before it would have to be reconciled with the result from the Senate, where the relative power of rural states has made air-traffic-control reform a nonstarter for years. Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune didn’t include any air-traffic-control provisions in that committee’s bipartisan bill, and the rural members of the committee have consistently been against it.

Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, a member of the Commerce Committee, toured a regional airport this weekend and told reporters there that under the proposal “those of us who live any place but the largest cities with the largest airports—we’re, in my view, at a disadvantage,” according to KFDI radio.

The general-aviation community concurs. Even with the revisions, six general-aviation groups said “any structural and governance reforms that require protections for an important sector of users is fundamentally flawed.” They’ve backed the Senate bill as a more stable option for long-term certainty.

“I think they’ll probably never be on board,” said Rui Neiva, an aviation-policy analyst at the Eno Center for Transportation. “I don’t know what else they could be given. At least right now I don’t think there’s anything else they could do.”

After Shuster’s bill failed to take off last year, legislators compromised on a 15-month extension that sponsors said would give everyone more time to explore the air-traffic-control reforms (“The stake­hold­er com­munity that’s in­ter­ested in that is go­ing to have to step up its game and fig­ure out how to win people,” said Thune at the time). Shuster is in his final term as chairman next year, so the pressure is on if he wants to get his proposal through.

However, it’s been five years since the last major FAA bill passed in 2012—itself preceded by 23 short-term extensions—so patience may be running thin for another bill that kicks the can down the road. A flat extension could delay policy on drone deliveries and passenger-focused provisions.

Beyond air-traffic control, the two bills have only minor policy differences. While both would include reforms to increase the use of drones, the Senate bill goes slightly farther with language related to deliveries. Likewise, the Senate bill contains stricter language on safety for lithium-ion batteries.

In the wake of the recent scandal when a United Airlines passenger was forcibly dragged from his seat, both bills contain language prohibiting passengers being booted from their seats and clarifying reimbursement procedures. The Senate bill also instructs the FAA to study seat size, while the House bill would block in-flight phone calls.

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