On the surface, it would be appear to be the easy component of President Trump’s infrastructure plan for Republicans to agree upon: a wonky, bureaucratic reform that could be done cheaply.
Yet, Trump’s promotion of a long-held Republican idea — privatizing the nation’s government-run air traffic control system — landed with a thud in Congress, failing to attract sufficient support at even the committee level in the Senate.
Late last month, a GOP-controlled Senate committee chose to ignore the proposal, approving a long-term aviation bill that maintains air traffic control as it is.
But the idea is receiving a far different reception in the House.
In the lower chamber, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee advanced a plan championed by Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., that transfers air traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration to a nonprofit corporation.
Lawmakers and advocates concede the GOP disagreement over the issue highlights the uncertain prospects for fulfilling the kind of big-spending, transformative infrastructure investment that Trump described on the campaign trail.
“I am very interested in helping the administration move forward with infrastructure,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who is on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, the panel with jurisdiction over the FAA that chose to not pursue air traffic control privatization.
“I agree with the president that we have underinvested in infrastructure, and the country’s economy can be greatly enhanced by improving it,” Moran told the Washington Examiner. “But I think fighting over this part of the infrastructure program [air traffic control] slows down progress we can make in getting a larger infrastructure plan in place.
Moran, like other Republican senators serving rural states, opposes privatizing the air traffic control system because he worries that smaller airports and general aviation, such as private pilots and business jets, will lose under a nonprofit governed by a board composed of industry players.
These critics are listening to warnings expressed by groups such as the Alliance for Aviation Across America, which represents general aviation airports and farmers, that argue a nonprofit system funded by user fees would favor major revenue generators — airlines at busy, urban airports.
In Kansas, Moran is especially beholden to the interests of the general aviation industry. Cessna, Beechcraft and Bombardier Learjet all manufacture jets and aviation products in the state, with those companies accounting for about 43 percent of private aircraft manufactured in the U.S., according to the Kansas Chamber of Commerce.
“My general concern of privatization is if there is to be a benefit to air traffic control, it will accrue only to the largest cities in the county,” Moran said. “Counties that are not the largest will find less satisfactory service.”
Moran predicts privatization will meet the same fate as it has in the past. Shuster saw his proposal to privatize air traffic control fail to make it the House floor last year.
“Even with Trump, I don’t see we are in any different position this year,” Moran said.
Shuster sees things differently. He began selling his plan to Trump in 2014, before Trump was a presidential candidate, as the means for making America’s air traffic control modernized and efficient, moving from ground-based radar to satellite-based GPS. That shift is already occurring with a technology known as NextGen, but Shuster says it will be done faster and cheaper with privatization.
Britain, Canada and New Zealand, among others, have already successfully switched to independently controlled air traffic control systems, in some form — a potent pitch to a president who views America as losing ground.
Shuster’s latest privatization plan passed his committee late last month as the cornerstone of an FAA reauthorization bill, mostly along party lines.
He says this year’s legislation contains new provisions meant to appease holdouts, such as the one that requires providers to continue to offer flight service to places that receive it now, meaning rural areas should not be ignored.
The 13-member board governing the proposed nonprofit, Shuster says, would have broad representation, including members from passenger airlines, cargo airlines, regional airlines, general aviation, business jets, controllers, airports and commercial pilots.
Shuster says he guesses the bill will pass the full House this time, as Speaker Paul Ryan supports privatization. He says that even if the Senate passes its own bill without the air traffic control reforms, the two chambers will negotiate a solution in conference, a tough sell under a tight deadline, as the FAA’s legal authority expires at the end of September.
“If the Senate passes its own bill, with or without the transformational reforms included in the committee’s bill, then we’ll go to conference and continue to work on this important bill,” Shuster said in a statement.
Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla,. who voted for the privatization plan in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, predicts that Trump’s advocacy of the issue will push Republicans to come around to it.
“Trump matters,” Webster told the Washington Examiner. “He’s got a veto pen, he’s got influence and he will be working that issue. He worked the healthcare bill in the House, and it ended up passing.”
Still, Webster contends if Trump and supportive lawmakers fail to implement air traffic control privatization, it wouldn’t doom the rest of the president’s infrastructure agenda.
Trump has sparsely outlined his broader infrastructure proposal, offering $200 billion in direct federal spending over 10 years. The plan would use tax breaks to incentivize private business to spend more money on infrastructure projects. With state and local contributions, total spending would equal $1 trillion.
“This [air traffic control privatization] is a tiny piece — I don’t think it bleeds into the overall infrastructure issue,” Webster said. “The huge, deciding portion of the infrastructure debate will be the money. How do we pay for it, can we pay for it. That’s the giant elephant in the room.”
Robert Poole, a transportation expert with the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank that backs Shuster’s proposal, says the fate of air traffic control privatization in Congress will be telling.
“This will certainly be a test for the White House to see how much sway the Trump administration has over infrastructure issues,” Poole told the Washington Examiner. “We will see how they decide to deal with this and see how serious they are. This is the one thing they can do before they get over the hurdle of tax reform and health care, because the FAA reauthorization process is already underway and should be done this year. This is supposed to be the leading edge of their infrastructure initiative.”