A House panel approved a controversial proposal on Tuesday to separate air traffic control from the federal government after a lengthy debate over the effort, which stalled on the House floor last year amid opposition from both parties.
In a 32-25 vote, mostly along party lines, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee advanced legislation that would reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and transfer the agency’s air navigation system to a nonprofit organization.
Transportation leaders hope the FAA bill will be considered on the House floor next month. Lawmakers are up against a tight timeline, as the FAA’s legal authority expires at the end of September. And the Senate still remains opposed to the idea, unveiling a long-term FAA bill last week that keeps air traffic control operations in place.
But supporters of the idea believe they have new momentum now that President Trump has come out in strong support of the privatization model, making it a central component of the White House’s “infrastructure week” initiative.
Democrats on the Transportation panel remained united in their opposition to the legislation, though two Democrats outside of the committee have signed onto the bill. The panel rejected an amendment from Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the ranking member, to remove the spinoff proposal from the FAA reauthorization and replace it with other agency reforms.
Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), who opposed the spinoff effort last year, was the only Republican to vote against the measure on Tuesday.
“When I tried to correct the holes to protect all members of this ecosystem, I found out that I still failed… The concept is fundamentally flawed,” Rokita said. “It really isn’t privatization, it’s corporatization of a monopoly.”
The bill, which would reauthorize the FAA for six years, would dramatically shift the country’s air navigation system over three years to a private corporation, which would be governed by a board of directors and have the power to impose user fees. The FAA would still maintain safety oversight, but would remove 30,000 FAA employees from the federal payroll.
The FAA measure would also create new consumer protections after a passenger was violently dragged off a United Airlines flight earlier this year, streamline the FAA certification process and aim to safely integrate drones into the national airspace.
The panel adopted a slew of amendments, including provisions that would require new planes to install secondary cockpit barriers, require the FAA to establish minimum seat sizes and a minimum distance between rows on commercial airlines, and ensure international trade agreements are enforced with respect to airline agreements.
The panel also narrowly agreed to an amendment prohibiting electronic cigarettes on flights, after Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) vaped e-cigarette devices during the markup in protest of the proposal.
The most heated debate, however, centered around the spinoff proposal. Supporters argue that it is necessary to help speed up long-stalled modernization efforts by removing operations from the unpredictable appropriations process, citing the many air traffic control towers that still use paper flight strips to track flights.
But critics are concerned about giving away their congressional oversight and allowing a nongovernmental entity to collect fees. They also say that the FAA has made significant progress with modernization and fear that those efforts could be derailed if the agency is split apart.
Some opponents worry that including the spinoff proposal in their measure to reauthorize the FAA cold imperil their efforts to enact long-term legislation. Congress was forced to pass a short-term patch last year because of the lack of support for the spinoff proposal the long-term FAA reauthorization.
This time around, Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) is hopeful that he has garnered enough support to get the proposal over the finish line in the lower chamber, and said they can work out differences with the Senate during conference negotiations.
Shuster made a series of key changes from last year’s spinoff proposal designed to win support from critics like Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), who were concerned that general aviation users and rural airports would not be adequately protected and represented under the model and could face higher faces or lose access to the airspace.
Under the new version, all general aviation users would be exempt from any user fees imposed by the new entity and the board would have a more diverse makeup.
The 13-member board would include three seats represented by the airlines – one for passenger, cargo and regional carriers – while general and business aviation would each get one seat. Airlines got four seats under last year’s proposal.
The rest of the board would be represented by government, airports, air traffic controllers, commercial pilots and two more members picked by the group.
Graves, a pilot, supported the proposal Tuesday after voting against it last year. But the changes were not enough to win over general aviation groups, who called the model fundamentally flawed.
The corporation’s board was also a point of contention for Democrats, who unsuccessfully tried to attach amendments to the measure that would have capped the board CEO’s annual salary at $400,000 and would have ensured that there are members on the board who specifically represent consumer interests.
“The traveling public is probably most interested in who has the power to say how much I pay… But this bill contains nothing that protects the flying public,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).
Republicans argued that consumers will already be represented under the model since the government will have a seat at the table, and emphasized that board members would have a fiduciary responsibility to the corporation.
“The government will have representation, and the government is the people,” Shuster said.
The panel also rejected an amendment from Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) that would have required the corporation to pay fair market value for the country’s air navigation system.
Democrats have blasted the proposal for giving away billions of dollars in government assets for free, pointing out that Canada and the United Kingdom were both compensated when they set up similar outside models.
But Republicans pushed back that the public has already paid for the assets, and requiring the corporation to purchase the system would just lead to the organization passing those costs back to the users of the system through higher fares and fees.
Supporters also repeatedly emphasized that the entity would be a nonprofit organization, so there is no financial gain for the corporation if it is given the system for free.
While the spinoff proposal is divisive, there were other areas in the underlying FAA bill where both parties agreed.
The House legislation 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 forcibly removed from a United Airlines 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 the most steam in Congress.
Other consumer protections in the bill include banning voice calls during commercial flights, requiring large and medium airports to provide private rooms in every terminal for nursing mothers and requiring airlines to clearly specify how they will accommodate passengers in the event of widespread computer outrages.
However, the panel rejected an amendment from Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) that would have required airlines to provide alternative transportation options, meal vouchers and overnight accommodations in the event of lengthy delays.
The House’s FAA reauthorization would establish an air carrier certificate for operators of small unmanned aircraft and require a federal assessment of the small drone registration system.
The legislation also would remove hurdles for airports in using the fees they collect from passengers to make facility upgrades, maintain all contract towers and provide a funding bump for the Airport Improvement Program.
Under the bill, the FAA would be given new tools to address noise and environmental issues, such as requiring the agency to study health impacts of overnight flight noise.
Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) withdrew an amendment that would have clarified that the FAA is in charge of dealing with noise issues, as opposed to the private corporation.
Shuster was concerned with the wording of the amendment, because it would have denied the corporation the ability to collaborate with the government on those issues. But Shuster agreed to work with Democrats on new language.
Lawmakers also debated whether to add worker protections to the FAA bill. The panel rejected a Democratic amendment that would have required the new air traffic control model to include “Buy America” requirements and wage requirements mandated by the Davis-Bacon Act.
The nearly century-old law requires employees working on federally funded construction projects over $2,000 to be paid prevailing wages.
But Republican lawmakers called it a “poison pill” amendment, because they said it would sink the entire spinoff effort.
The panel showed interest in keeping Davis-Bacon laws in tact for other areas of the bill. The committee rebuffed a Republican amendment that would have raised the project threshold that triggers Davis-Bacon requirements from $2,000 to $150,000.