Melanie Zanona THE HILL
House Panel Unveils Bill to Spin Off Air Traffic Control
June 21, 2017
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  • A House panel unveiled a long-term aviation bill on Wednesday that includes a contentious proposal to separate air traffic control from the federal government, as well as new consumer protections inspired by a passenger being violently dragged off a United Airlines flight earlier this year.

    The legislation, which would reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for six years, includes a series of key changes from last year’s spinoff proposal that are designed to win support from critics who opposed a similar effort to break apart the agency. 

    “I believe this bill improves upon the bill we put forth in the last Congress,” Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told reporters. “My metric for saying it improved is we gained support going through this process.”

    Shuster said the measure will get a committee vote next Tuesday, with the hope of bringing it to the floor in mid-July. Lawmakers are up against a tight timeline, as the FAA’s legal authority expires at the end of September.

    The House FAA bill would dramatically shift air traffic control operations over three years by transferring the country’s air navigation system to a nonprofit corporation, which would be governed by a board of directors and have the power to impose user fees. The FAA would still maintain oversight, however.

    Shuster has long been a champion of the idea, which President Trump has also endorsed as a way to speed up long-stalled modernizations efforts by removing operations from the unpredictable appropriations process.

    But the spinoff proposal stalled last year amid opposition from GOP tax-writers and appropriators concerned about giving up their congressional oversight, and from rural lawmakers, who fear that general aviation users and rural airports would not be adequately protected and represented under the model.

    Under the new version, general aviation users would be exempt from any user fees imposed by the new entity and airlines would get fewer seats at the table than under the previous proposal.

    “We’ve made significant changes to the board. The board is more transparent than it was,” Shuster said, noting that they’ve added Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), “who’s the voice of [general aviation] in Congress.”

    Graves, a pilot, was one of the few Republican “no” votes on the spinoff proposal last year and worked to win concessions from Shuster this year.

    While Graves is supportive of the new proposal, it’s unclear whether outside general aviation groups will warm up to the idea or whether the new changes could alienate others groups who had been previously on board with Shuster’s proposal.

    The measure could also run into opposition from the Senate, where lawmakers have already said their FAA reauthorization will not break apart the FAA, citing a lack of support for the spinoff idea.

    But Shuster brushed aside concerns over the Senate bill, saying the chambers could hash out those differences in conference.

    The House legislation also contains new consumer protections, including language to prevent airlines from involuntarily removing passengers from their seats once they have already boarded the aircraft.

    The provision comes after a passenger was violently dragged off a United flight earlier this year, which ignited an international firestorm and prompted a wave of congressional hearings and bills.

    Legislation to prevent involuntarily bumping was one of the measures that had gained that most steam.