Taking U.S. Air Traffic Control Private Has Stiff Opposition

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For the top U.S. House lawmaker on transportation to succeed in turning the government-run air-traffic-control system into a nonprofit corporation, he will have to overcome decades of opposition from private pilots and some Democrats.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster won praise from airlines and powerful aviation interests when he unveiled his plan Monday in Washington. Opponents remained wary.

“I have a number of serious concerns about the constitutionality, the national security implications, and the logistical challenges of separating the system,” Representative Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the top Democrat on Shuster’s committee, said in an e-mailed statement. While he shared Shuster’s goals, he urged “extreme caution.”

The separation from the government is needed to insulate the FAA from political interference and budget uncertainty, and offers the best hope of speeding introduction of new technology, Shuster said in a speech in Washington.

The Pennsylvania Republican, who has succeeded in passing bipartisan transportation legislation in spite of recent gridlock in Congress, acknowledged there were differing opinions and urged industry groups to compromise for the greater good.

“We agree that continuing on the present course is the surest path to failure,” he said.

User Fees

The more than $10 billion operation within the FAA that oversees flight routes and purchases computers, radars and other technology would become part of a federally chartered, independent, nonprofit corporation, according to a summary of the legislation.

The corporation would be governed by a board representing users of the aviation system including airlines, private-plane owners and unions, according to the committee. The FAA would continue to set standards and oversee safety of the system.

The plan calls for funding air-traffic control with user fees instead of the current patchwork of taxes, fees and general revenue from the government. The structure would insulate the new corporation from the federal budget process.

The legislation would promise to protect current FAA employees who would no longer be working for the government.

Democratic Opposition

Representative Rick Larsen, the highest ranking Democrat on the House aviation subcommittee, said in an interview that he didn’t agree with Shuster’s approach.

“I think this is an area where we’re going to diverge,” said Larsen, of Washington. “It seems like we’re driving a solution before we answer many of the questions that people have.”

While he agreed with Shuster that the current system can be improved, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the government is making progress on modifications. The agency would work with Shuster on his plan, Foxx said in an e-mailed statement.

The Obama administration hasn’t looked at the details of Shuster’s plan, press secretary Josh Earnest said.

“We’ll be in touch with Congress about it,” he said of the legislation.

Airlines support the move as the best way to speed efforts to modernize flight monitoring and improve traffic flow, the Washington trade group Airlines for America said Monday in an e-mailed statement.

‘Serious Concerns’

“Inefficiency in our national air space system costs our economy a staggering $30 billion per year while subjecting travelers to delays, cancellations and countless hours of lost productivity,” the group said in the statement.

The National Business Aviation Association, which has opposed various similar plans for years, hasn’t changed its position, according to an e-mailed statement Monday.

“While the specifics of Representative Shuster’s plans are not totally certain, we at NBAA have serious concerns with a number of the concepts the Congressman described in his address,” the group said in the statement.

NBAA, like other private-plane groups, doesn’t want aircraft users to have to pay user fees and believes Congress should retain control over the system.

At least one opponent to earlier proposals, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union, is now open to the idea.

President Paul Rinaldi said he and other union leaders have been impressed on multiple visits to Canada and other countries that have privately run air-traffic services.

Still, the union representing almost 15,000 controllers is waiting for more information before it makes a decision on whether it will back Shuster’s plan.

“It’s a big challenge,” Craig Fuller, an aviation consultant who serves on a panel advising the Federal Aviation Administration, said in an interview about Shuster’s plan. “He was hoping to achieve perhaps more consensus than exists.”

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