Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Trump could clear path for privatizing air traffic control

Rep. Bill Shuster finally might have a receptive ear in the White House for his plan to privatize air traffic control systems at U.S. airports, a plan long opposed by Democrats.

After a Federal Aviation Authority reauthorization plan failed to include a private, independent air traffic control authority during the summer, Shuster is planning to make the FAA one of the top priorities for his committee in the new Congress. Authorization for the FAA expires at the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30.

Upon once again being selected chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the Pennsylvania Republican said reforming the FAA is a top priority. That echoes calls from President-elect Trump, a massive critic of U.S. airports who has said U.S. airports are akin to "third-world" infrastructure.

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"We have more work to do, including passing an FAA reform and reauthorization bill that ensures the United States has a safe, modern, efficient aviation system for the future," Shuster said last month. "We have a unique opportunity to accomplish a great deal for the American people with a president-elect who is focused on improving the nation's infrastructure."

Shuster's plan, introduced in the beginning of 2016, would have created an independent air traffic control provider, which he said was standard in the rest of the world. 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.

Privatization of air traffic controllers has been suggested by major airlines since the 1980s, but has been shot down whenever it is raised in Congress. However, Shuster feels the time is right for a new push.

Having the FAA in charge of air traffic control means too much bureaucracy and too little chance for change. The status quo isn't capable of handling increasing demand and will result in more costs, he said.

That seems to echo Trump's general assessment of American airport infrastructure.

In September, weeks before he won the presidential election, Trump said U.S. airports are similar to the ones found in a "third-world country." While Trump has gone quiet on most policy specifics following the election, his website includes upgrades to the nation's airports in his $1 trillion infrastructure plan.

He plans to "work with Congress to modernize our airports and air traffic control systems, end long wait times, and reform the FAA and TSA, while also ensuring that American travelers are safe from terrorism and other threats," according to the site.

Shuster told reporters last month that Trump's transition team is open to his ideas.

"I've had some conversations with Trump transition folks and they seemed very interested in putting this in their larger infrastructure bill," Shuster told reporters.

The proposal would face staunch opposition from Democrats, who killed the Shuster's proposal in the July bill extending FAA authorization.

In 2016, Democrats didn't like the idea of handing over billions of dollars worth of infrastructure — bought and paid for by the American taxpayer — to a private corporation. In addition, the plan would toss the FAA into an uncertain oversight role, according to a memo prepared by House Democrats.

The plan would call for about 30,000 employees to be transferred from the FAA to the new corporation, according to the memo. Democrats called that plan a "poison pill" in the bill during committee hearings about the bill last year.

A Government Accountability Office report indicated there are many complicating factors in separating the air traffic control systems from the federal government.

The report said separating air traffic control from the rest of the FAA would complicate NextGen, a long-term initiative to modernize air traffic control that is estimated to cost about $850 million.

"A critical part of NextGen is developing and implementing new [air traffic control] procedures, which might be more difficult to do if the ATC entity and safety regulator are separated," the report stated.

No legislation has been proposed on how the independent corporation would be funded, what the oversight of that funding would look like, how the private entity would reduce risk and liability, and how assets paid for by U.S. taxpayers would be privatized.

The length of time needed for a transition could be a problem as well, according to the report. An entire restructure of the American air traffic control system would take between five and seven years to work through all problems that may arise. The U.S. air traffic control system is generally considered the busiest in the world, handling more than 50,000 flights per day and 700 million passengers per year, according to the GAO.

Following November's election, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said Shuster's plan still has too many unanswered questions.

"Any proposal to overhaul the existing [air traffic control] system must be thoroughly vetted, not rushed through Congress just because the political landscape makes it easier," he said.

"If privatization proponents are serious about moving any [air traffic control] proposal forward in the new Congress, the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure needs to schedule a series of hearings and hold in-depth discussions that address the major concerns raised by opponents, stakeholder groups and the GAO. There is no consensus on this plan, and we cannot take that lightly."

Source:   http://www.washingtonexaminer.com

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