A Republican-controlled House committee on Thursday endorsed a bill that would wrest responsibility for running the nation's air traffic control system from the government and turn it over to a private, nonprofit corporation run by airlines and other aviation interests.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved the measure on a mostly party-line vote of 32-26 over the objections of Democrats, who called it a giveaway to the airlines that are providing the political muscle behind the bill. The bill reauthorizes the Federal Aviation Administration and sets aviation policy for six years.
The panel's chairman and the bill's chief sponsor, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said "transformational" change is needed because the FAA's air traffic modernization program is taking longer and costing more than anticipated. The program will switch the system from one based on radar to one based on satellites.
Both sides agree the delays and cost overruns have come partly because Congress has subjected the agency to shutdowns, furloughs and repeated short-term funding extensions. It's difficult for the FAA to commit to expensive, long-term contracts for new equipment and services because it's dependent on yearly budget infusions from lawmakers.
A private corporation would be able to set fees for use of air traffic services, which would produce a steady revenue stream and enable it to issue bonds and raise capital. Shuster said that would speed up deployment of the new system, which is expected to boost efficiency and save billions of dollars by reducing air traffic congestion and delays. The FAA would still provide safety oversight.
Opponents of the plan say it's a dangerous gamble that could disrupt the world's largest and most complex air traffic system for years. Although dozens of countries have separate agencies handle their the air traffic services and safety oversight functions, only two — Canada and the United Kingdom — have transferred the ownership of their air traffic equipment and facilities to a private corporation, according to a Government Accountability Office report. Both corporations had to be bailed out after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks resulted in a slowdown in air travel, reducing revenue, the report said.
It would be the largest transfer of U.S. government assets to the private sector in the nation's history, according to Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the senior Democratic committee member.
Other segments of the aviation industry have complained that the bill would give major airlines effective control of the corporation's board. Airlines for America, the trade association for large airlines, would pick four of the corporation's 10 initial board members under the bill. The Air Line Pilots Association, which frequently sides with the major airlines on economic issues affecting the industry, would also select a board member. If they stick together, that would give them veto power over any candidate for chief executive officer of the corporation, who is chosen by the board. The CEO then becomes the 11th board member.
Among the segments of the aviation industry that don't get board seats under the bill are airports and the regional airline industry, which operates for 45 percent of U.S. airline flights.
Shuster has received more in campaign contributions from the airlines in the current election cycle, $63,000, than any other member of the House, according to the political money tracking website OpenSecrets.org. American and United airlines, which are lobbying for the bill, are among the top contributors over the course of his career. Delta Air Lines has parted company with the rest of the industry and is opposing the bill.
As it worked through amendments to the legislation, the committee defeated two Democratic amendments mostly on party-line votes that would have required the FAA to study whether smaller airline seats on many planes are hurting passengers' health and safety, and to conduct evacuation drills to determine whether all passengers can exit an airliner equipped with smaller seats within 90 seconds as the law requires.
The panel also rejected a DeFazio amendment that would allow the FAA to issue safety regulations involving air cargo shipments of rechargeable batteries, which tests have shown can cause uncontrollable fires. A 2012 law passed by Congress prevents the agency from issuing regulations that are more stringent than those of the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. agency, unless there is an air crash caused by a battery fire.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who authored the 2012 provision, said it's important that there be a single international standard since the batteries are shipped internationally. DeFazio called that stance a "tombstone mentality."
As it stands now, the FAA can't act "until people die," he said.