Aviation reform bill would privatize air traffic control
A new bill, which may be Congress’s biggest reform to the aviation and airline industry since 1978, would privatize much of the industry including air traffic control.
H.R. 4441 -- the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act -- was introduced last month by Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA9), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The bill’s most controversial provision would remove the approximately 30,000 air traffic controllers from Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) control to a private not-for-profit organization.
What supporters say
Proponents contend that the move would save taxpayer money and remove an often-ineffective and cumbersome federal bureaucracy. They also note that similar plans have worked fairly well elsewhere, such as one from our neighbor to the north called Nav Canada.
“The FAA’s attempts at modernization have been extremely costly and unquestionably ineffective; government watchdogs have frequently highlighted the various missteps, cost overruns, and setbacks,” Shuster wrote in an op-ed for Fox News, noting that the Department of Transportation’s current modernization plan has ballooned from an initial $40 billion projection to $120 billion and is running years behind schedule.
“The bill lets the FAA do what it does best – focus on the safety of U.S. air transportation – but it stops assuming that a government bureaucracy can act like a Silicon Valley company… This is a proven model that works. Since 1987, more than 50 nations have shifted the responsibility for providing ATC services to an independent entity. In fact, the United States remains one of the very few industrialized countries that has not done so,” Shuster wrote.
The transition to privatization would take place over about three years and would reduce public spending on the FAA from $17 billion to an estimated $6 billion per year.
What opponents say
But the plan has not come without controversy. Opponents worry about the incentives for a private organization and potential safety lapses that could result. “Privatizing the FAA will only add uncertainty and potentially reverse major advancements that have been made over the past several years toward modernization,” wrote three unions representing thousands of FAA employees in a statement.
They also warned against “turning it over to a private corporation to make funding and governing decisions, possibly subjecting the system to economic downturns and financial hardships. FAA employees are public servants who ensure the safety of the flying public. A privatized model that functions without oversight could lead to self-serving agendas, taking control out of the public’s hands.”
A bipartisan group of lawmakers, notably including House Appropriations Committee Chair Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY5), also expressed their concerns and see no reason to interfere with the status quo.
“While FAA can and should improve and accelerate the development of modernized air traffic systems, we do not believe the solution is less oversight and less accountability,” several Appropriations Committee members wrote, calling the removal of congressional oversight “an abdication of our duties to the American people as Members of Congress.”
They also warned about the national security implications of this new proposed entity, “We would have serious concerns about the chain of command in a national emergency and the ability of our defense and law enforcement agencies to have unfettered access to the national airspace.”
The bill has five cosponsors in the House, all Republicans. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR4), the top Democrat on the Transportation Committee, vowed to introduce his own competing bill that tracks more closely with Democratic spending priorities, but he does not appear to have done so yet.
It also does not appear that President Obama or his administration have formally weighed in yet on this legislation. The bill passed out of committee last month, and appears to be moving forward despite some reports to the contrary.