Saturday, January 14, 2017

GOP not giving up on air traffic control privatization

The Trump administration may not be as motivated to privatize the nation's air traffic control systems as previously thought, but the House Republican proposing the change isn't worried yet.

Secretary of Transportation-designee Elaine Chao said Wednesday in her confirmation hearing President-elect Trump hasn't taken a position on privatization of air traffic control systems. That may have come as a surprise after Rep. Bill Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, told reporters Trump was on board with the plan.

Justin Harclerode, spokesman for Shuster at the committee, said the Pennsylvania Republican wasn't taken aback or worried about Chao's comments. He said reports that Trump supported Shuster's plan to spin off air traffic control systems into a private corporation chartered by Congress were overblown because Shuster and Trump had only spoke in general terms about the plan.

Once Chao is confirmed and Trump's Department of Transportation is up and running, Shuster will push the plan with the administration and try to get them on board, he said.

"He firmly believes in the idea and he's really looking forward to discussing it with the new administration," Harclerode said.

Shuster's plan, introduced in the beginning of 2016, would have created an independent air traffic control provider to replace the current FAA-controlled air traffic control system. The private company would be chartered by Congress and have an 11-member board of directors.

The board would be made up of four people appointed by major airlines, two people appointed by the aircraft owners association, one person appointed by the airline pilots union, one person appointed by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, two at-large appointees and the CEO of the corporation, appointed by the board. About 30,000 FAA employees would be transferred to the new corporation.

Chao, the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, raised some eyebrows at her Wednesday hearing when she offered a tepid statement about privatization being included in the infrastructure plan Trump promised during the election.

"I am open to all ideas," Chao said. "I am cognizant of those who are in favor it. I am cognizant of those who have safety concerns."

Harclerode said Shuster plans to make the case to the administration that his plan would shrink the federal government, bringing a conservative victory to the new president.

"It's a much better path forward for our air traffic control system than the current FAA bureaucracy," he said. "This kind of reform would reduce the federal bureaucracy and burden on taxpayers by setting up this not-for-profit corporation to modernize and provide air traffic control services. It is a smaller government solution."

However, opponents of the plan have seized on those statements as a possible sign that Shuster's plan doesn't have a chance of becoming law. Liz Mair, a consultant who is opposed to Shuster's plan, said the plan remains deeply flawed and Chao's indifferent statement shows that it's not gaining traction.

"It remains a deeply flawed proposal that is not generating widespread support," Mair said in an email. "Given that the plan would see Congress delegating away its taxing authority, and has been criticized as a giveaway to big, entrenched interests that aren't exactly popular with the American public, conservatives, or enthusiastic Trump supporters, that's hardly surprising."

Democrats have been against Shuster's plan, blocking it in committee during the 114th Congress. In order to get them to possibly agree to the plan, Shuster's plan calls for union contracts to be transferred from the FAA to the new private entity, meaning there would be no hit for union workers in the transition.

That led the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the leading trade group, to endorse Shuster's plan last year. Mair said it's sure the moneyed fight will keep up if there's a fight to get the Trump administration fully on board with the Shuster plan.

"Given the deep financial and emotional stakes for proponents of this plan, you can bet serious money and other resources will continue to be deployed to try to push it through," she said.


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