Last updated: 04:15 PM ET, Mon May 02 2016

Could Air Traffic Control Still Be Privatized?

Airlines & Airports | Josh Lew | May 02, 2016

Could Air Traffic Control Still Be Privatized?

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

The Senate is taking a week-long breather. According to sources inside the legislature, an agreement on the final form of the FAA reauthorization bill could be reached within a couple of weeks. 

The Senate version of the bill was created by the chair of the Commerce Committee after a bill written by the House Transportation Committee was sidelined because of a controversial plan to privatize the air traffic control system in the U.S. (which is currently overseen by the FAA). 

The author of that stalled House bill, Republican Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, is apparently still hopeful that some sort of air traffic control overhaul will be included in the final version of the bill, which will be voted on by all of Congress. 

Shuster’s spokesman, Jim Billimoria, explained the reason for this optimism: "The chairman has had ongoing discussions with both Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate about air traffic control reform. The numerous problems he's outlined have not been addressed or fixed in any other piece of legislation to date.”

Most airlines backed Shuster's proposal, except for Delta. However, the chairman and the powerful airline lobbyists at Airlines for America were not able to sway most House members. According to congressional insiders, Shuster’s bill was shelved after the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Hal Rogers (R-Ky), whose committee shared jurisdiction over the bill, said that he would not give his approval. 

READ MORE: Air Traffic Control Privatization Bill Has Been Sidelined

The current Senate bill, which was written by Commerce Committee chairman John Thune, does not make any changes to the current air traffic control setup. Both Shuster and Thune are Republicans, but their opinions about how to proceed are very different. Thune’s goal is to create a bill that is likely to have bipartisan support and, therefore, pass easily. He wants to avoid having to pass another short-term extension.  

Shuster, meanwhile, has obviously not given up on his plans to privatize the ATC. Given the amount of opposition that the idea encountered in the House, it seems unlikely that he will get his way. 

However, he could still be able to get enough support for some sort of compromise. A lot of the opposition to the first bill had to do with the way that the privatized air traffic control organization would be overseen and funded. A board that included members of the biggest airlines in the country would oversee ATC operations and would be able to levy fees to help pay for the system. House Republican John Mica, from Florida, has suggested that there could be some kind of compromise that would make Shuster’s idea more palatable to congressional leaders. 

READ MORE: Is Rep. Bill Shuster Getting Too Friendly With Airline Lobbyists?

Mica, who has always been in favor of some form of privatization, suggests that many of the objectors would accept the idea if the government was able to maintain control of the funding. A private, nonprofit corporation would still be overseen by a board of industry stakeholders, but they would have to get all their money from the government and work under its budget constraints.    

This plan might draw criticism from privatization supporters for not going far enough, and opponents could still complain that the change will give airlines too much power. However, some sort of compromise would have more of a chance of making it onto the bill. If the final iteration of the bill is only two weeks away, Shuster and his supporters will not have much time to convince members of both the House and Senate that such a compromise is worthwhile.  


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