Air (Traffic Control) Temperature
June 19, 2017
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  • AIR (TRAFFIC CONTROL) TEMPERATURE: A bill to revamp the FAA’s air traffic control functions could materialize as soon as this week. Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), a noted general aviation booster and House Transportation chairman-hopeful, has openly signaled he’s trying to find a way to get to “yes” with current Chairman Bill Shuster — and told MT last week he’s “optimistic” about prospects. Of course, the pressure’s on for Graves. He wants to lead the committee once Shuster is term-limited from the post next Congress, and he already bucked Shuster once on his marquee issue by voting against last year’s bill. With President Donald Trump and now House GOP leadership on board with at least the broad concept, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for members like Graves who want to move up the ladder to remain a hard “no.”

    That being said: Graves has maintained all along that he has to feel like the general aviation community is “protected” under any new regime in order to win his support. General aviation groups’ main concerns are pushing back any new user fees, and the powers and leadership of the board overseeing the new corporation. Pros know that, under Shuster’s 2016 bill, private turbine aircraft were exempt from any user fee charges — but that wasn’t enough to win support of groups like the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. And the corporation’s board of directors would have had two seats for GA interests, compared to four for the major commercial airlines. (Keep in mind the Trump administration’s “principles” for an ATC overhaul would grant just one seat to general aviation, and two for airlines.) “What’s being proposed [by the White House] is just the president’s proposal,” Graves told us after the committee’s hearing the other week on FAA reauthorization. “What the House does in committee is going to be totally different.”

    How so? The makeup of the board seems ripe for tweaking, given the flak Shuster took last year for the airlines’ dominance on it and the administration’s suggestions. But any tinkering risks irking groups who were behind that earlier version and who may not be so keen to see competing interests get more goodies. That’s particularly the case with the air traffic controllers’ union, which has been silent on how it views the White House principles, so far. Then there’s the tricky issue of fees. Any whiff of user fees for any segment of general aviation is likely to get a stiff arm. But can proponents stomach carving out more exemptions for GA planes, one of the major issues that consumed lawmakers trying to reauthorize the FAA a decade ago (remember Edna)? And there’s the whole issue of “access” and what it means for those smaller planes to have it. Those are the main issues we’re watching.

    Hot take(off): Anytime lawmakers contemplate major legislation, they have to manage multiple constituencies clamoring to protect their interests (like this little idea called “tax reform”). Most of those bills that make it to a president’s desk don’t please everybody, but the lead-up is always a delicate balancing act. This one is no different. And while dynamics in the House appear to be shifting some (all while senior GOP appropriators continue to beat drums against it), the Senate is a totally different animal.

    SPEAKING OF FAA: More than 100 CEOs of various-sized businesses — many of whom are pilots themselves — are sending letters to House and Senate leaders today opposing the ATC spinoff. The executives include big names — like Continental Resources’ Harold Hamm and Hewlett-Packard’s Dion Weisler — alongside the heads of smaller companies that use planes to conduct business. “We stand by the belief and promise from the federal government to all Americans that our nation’s airspace belongs to the public, and every person, business and community should have fair and equitable access, not just a few special interests in select cities and metropolitan areas,” they wrote.