David Shepardson REUTERS
Republicans Propose Bill to Privatize U.S. Air Traffic Control
June 21, 2017
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  • The chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Transportation Committee on Wednesday proposed legislation to privatize the U.S. air traffic control system and make other aviation changes, but it faces an uncertain future in Congress.

    The panel plans to consider the bill next Tuesday, and the full House will vote in mid-July, said the committee’s Republican chairman, Representative Bill Shuster. 

    “This is about saving the taxpayers’ money,” Shuster told reporters on Wednesday. “Maintaining the status quo is unacceptable.”

    The legislation would make it illegal for an airline to bump an already boarded passenger from a flight. In April, a United Airlines passenger was forcibly removed from his seat, prompting public outrage. The airline banned the practice.

    The bill would also require the U.S. Transportation Department to clarify regulations for compensating passengers, including that there is no maximum compensation, and would legally bar the use of cellphones and other mobile devices for phone calls during flights.

    No airline currently allows in-flight calls from personal phones. In April, the Federal Communications Commission said it planned to halt a regulatory process that could have led to in-flight calls on airplanes.

    The legislation also requires large and medium-sized airports to provide clean private rooms in all terminals for nursing mothers.

    Airlines would have to post a prominent link on their website on services offered in the event of a widespread computer outage. Many airlines have been hit by computer system outages over the last year.

    The most controversial proposal is the privatization of air traffic control.

    Earlier this month, President Donald Trump unveiled a plan to modernize air traffic control and lower flying costs. Under the proposal, air traffic control would be spun off from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and put under the oversight of a nonprofit corporation.

    Congressman Shuster said airlines would have three seats on the 13-member board: one for major airlines, one for cargo carriers and one for regional airlines. The Trump administration has proposed giving airlines two seats on the board, while Shuster last year proposed giving airlines four seats.

    Shuster aims to address concerns among private plane owners and rural airports by barring the new air traffic control entity from charging general aviation operators user fees.

    Critics say the plan would hand control of a key asset to special interests and big airlines.

    A coalition of five general aviation groups said in a statement on Wednesday that they would not support the bill, saying it was “fundamentally flawed.” The Airline Owners and Pilots Association said the bill has a “high potential for unintended consequences as well as increased costs and uncertainty.”

    Shuster’s bill would reauthorize the FAA for six years and also has provisions to speed up a decision by the Transportation Department on whether to allow expanded commercial drone use.

    The Transportation Department would also have to consider whether to require airlines to stock emergency medicine for children aboard flights.

    The legislation would also authorize significantly higher funding for a program that subsidizes commercial air service to rural airports, which the Trump administration budget proposed eliminating.

    The Senate Commerce Committee’s chairman, Senator John Thune, said on Tuesday that he was not planning to include air traffic control privatization in the FAA reauthorization, a committee aide said.

    The administration and Shuster say they would not charge the private entity for the government’s air traffic control assets and would bar Congress from reviewing fees charged by the board. 

    Executives from United, Hawaiian Airlines Inc, American Airlines Inc and Southwest Airlines Co, strongly back the proposal.

    The FAA spends nearly $10 billion a year on air traffic control funded largely through passenger user fees, and has spent more than $7.5 billion on next-generation air traffic control reforms in recent years.

    It is unclear whether privatization would speed the rollout of new systems such as satellite-based aircraft tracking that replaces ground radar dating back to World War Two.

    (Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Jonathan Oatis)