ATC Privatization: Beware the retiring Congressman!

Dave Higdon anticipates a last-ditch, full-congress press to steal Air Traffic Control from the American public. Are you ready?

Dave Higdon  |  12th January 2018
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Dave Higdon
Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon is a highly respected, NBAA Gold Wing award-winning aviation journalist who has covered all...

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ATC Tower

Dave Higdon anticipates a last-ditch, full-congress press to steal Air Traffic Control from the American public. Are you ready?

Republican Bill Shuster (R-Pa) revealed his intention to retire at the end of the 115th Congress on January 3, 2019. The announcement marked the starting gun for a full-Congress press to achieve his singular goal before leaving: Transfer of the world's most efficient air-traffic-management system to a non-governmental entity.

In the legislative mix with Rep. Shuster's bill that would transfer control of Air Traffic Control (ATC) away from the public, Congress faces a looming deadline of March 31 to either extend FAA funding with another temporary fix or pass a longer-term funding bill.

That makes the coming months the most dangerous ever for proponents of maintaining public control of a major public asset.

The Many Paths to Privatization

Part of the danger lay in the many paths open to Rep. Shuster for passing a privatization bill. Republican leaders in congress spent last weekend with President Donald Trump, meeting at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland. The focus was infrastructure funding and legislative goals for the rest of this Congress.

Rep. Shuster may find a warm reception for his proposal in an infrastructure-spending bill. It's conceivable that as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (Rep).

Shuster could get his language into an infrastructure bill without holding a committee vote or holding public hearings. That technique worked in getting last month’s tax-overhaul bill through Congress.

Rep. Shuster could also pursue a stand-alone bill, a more difficult approach. Or his efforts might sway enough Senators to change their opinions of the privatization bill. Currently bi-partisan majorities of both parties in the Senate oppose the proposal. Shuster would need to sway enough Senators to break a likely ‘Filibuster’.

Privatization Obstacles Remain Numerous

Rep. Shuster's first hurdle is getting his bill (H.R. 2997) beyond its most-recent success, the approval of his committee.

Since then it has languished, awaiting House action. Success of H.R. 2997 with the privatization language is not a given. Some of the 435 House members have doubts; others – notably nearly the entire General Aviation Caucus – oppose the move.

Even if H.R. 2997 passes in the House with the privatization language intact it faces a far-higher bar to clear in the Senate.

Senate action awaits House action – though the Senate's patience over passing FAA reauthorization may be dwindling. The Senate Commerce Committee may take up the Senate's reauthorization bill soon, as committee chairman Sen. John Thune (R-South Dakota) seeks to clear FAA action off his legislative calendar.

And the Senate action faces opposition from Senators who oppose rolling back the 2013 rule requiring Part 121 First Officers to gain 1,500 hours of experience before gaining eligibility for a right seat job – a rule many believe contributes to a chronic shortage of pilots in Business, Commercial and Military Aviation. Senator Thune proposed that amendment in the Senate's reauthorization bill.

This is a High-Traffic Area

This is a time to keep your eyes and ears open to all avenues, including the ATC privatization proponents.

Some industry players expect no more transparency on an FAA reauthorization bill than seen in the process used to pass tax reform. The closer we get to March 31, the higher the risk grows. We must remain vigilant until the final gun sounds.

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