Sen. Thune Unveils FAA Reauthorization Without ATC
June 22, 2017
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  • FAA authorizers in the U.S. Senate on June 22 unveiled their proposed bill to reauthorize the aviation agency, including efforts to bolster rural America’s access and use of domestic airspace—but notably missing any move to privatize air traffic control (ATC), which dominates a counterpart bill in the U.S. House of Representatives.

    Leaders of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee said their bill (S.1405) further would help manufacturers by reforming certifications, improve certain consumer protections, underpin ATC technology modernization, and boosts UAV enforcement powers at FAA.

    In short, the Senate measure appears to address many of the reform initiatives largely agreed on in FAA circles outside of the contentious ATC outsourcing being pushed by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.). Shuster unveiled his FAA reauthorization proposal (H.R. 2997) the day before, which renews and modifies a plan to move ATC services into a federally chartered, nonprofit organization run by a 13-member board (Aviation Daily June 21).

    The absence of any ATC privatization in the Senate language was forecasted days earlier by Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune, who told The Hill newspaper his panel did not have support for the move—as happened during the similar fight last year. Instead, Thune painted a more populist approach to FAA reauthorization.

    “Our legislation focuses on enhancing safety, improving air travel for the traveling public, and reforms to help bring the future of aviation closer to reality,” he said in a joint statement with other panel-leading Republicans and Democrats. “To address eroding rural access to our air transportation system and delays created by congestion around our most populated corridors, our proposal seeks out new solutions benefiting all Americans who use or depend on air transportation.” 

    Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.), the ranking Democrat, stressed the point. “This is a good example of what can happen when Republicans and Democrats work toward the same goal,” he said. “With this bill, we’re putting the flying public first and insisting they receive better treatment from the airlines.”

    According to a committee staff summary, the chairman’s mark of the Senate version:

    ·         Criminalizes “reckless” drone behavior around manned aircraft and runways and authorizes FAA drone registration authority;

    ·          Includes new requirements on the bulk transfer of lithium batteries;

    ·         “Supports” contract ATC towers with eye toward helping rural communities;

    ·         Offers general aviation more “flexibility” to pursue infrastructure investment;

    ·         “Expands” rights of pilots in FAA enforcement proceedings;

    ·         Works to “improving” parts certification;

    ·         Acts on some Transportation Department inspector general recommendations for perfecting the NextGen ATC modernization program;

    ·         Increases Airports Improvement Program authorized funding by $400 million to $3.75 billion annually;

    ·         “Streamlines” application process for Passenger Facility Charges;

    ·         Prohibits carriers from denying revenue passengers of boarding once a gate attendant has approved unless for safety and security reasons;

    ·         Requires airlines to “promptly” return ancillary fees purchased but not received by passengers; and

    ·         Creates standard reporting of ancillary fees.

    Traditional opponents of Shuster’s efforts quickly praised Thune’s bill. “The Thune/Nelson bill is in the best bipartisan traditions of the United States Senate and we look forward to working with the Committee leadership toward its swift approval by the full Committee and entire Senate,” said National Air Transportation Association President Martin Hiller