WASHINGTON – Responsibility for the nation's air traffic control operations would shift from the government to a private, nonprofit corporation under legislation introduced Wednesday as part of an overhaul of how Washington oversees the aviation system.
The measure extends for six years the authority of the Federal Aviation Administration and continues its role as the regulator of aviation safety, including the safety of air traffic operations. It also prohibits cellphone calls by airline passengers in-flight, and requires airlines refund bag fees when checked bags arrive more than 24 hours overdue.
But the FAA would lose responsibility for day-to-day air traffic operations and the transition from a radar-based traffic control system to one based on satellite technology. A board representing aviation system users would govern the new, federally chartered air traffic control corporation.
The bill would complete the transfer of air traffic operations, hundreds of facilities and about 38,000 workers to the new corporation within three years.
Rep. Bill Shuster, the bill's chief sponsor, said it was a "transformational" solution and greatly needed because modernization of the air traffic system is taking too long and costing too much. Without an overhaul, the system won't be able to keep up with growing air traffic demands and congestion will increase, said Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Shuster, R-Pa., told reporters that he also wants to revamp how air traffic operations are financed, eliminating most airline ticket taxes in favor of a fee-based system.
The proposal envisions charging commercial operators — airlines, air cargo companies, charter plane, air taxi services and others — for the services they use. Private pilots and noncommercial aircraft operators would continue the same fuel and other taxes as before rather than service fees.
But the bill doesn't specify how the tax and fee structure would be changed because decisions on taxes are up to the House Ways and Means Committee; Shuster is working with that committee, a spokesman said.
It's unclear if this would ultimately result in lower airfares since airlines would presumably pass along the cost of the new fees to their customers, but the hope is that privatizing air traffic control will produce greater efficiency and reduce the overall cost of the system, according to Republican committee aides. The aides briefed reporters on the condition that they not be named because they weren't authorized to speak publicly.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the senior Democrat on the committee, said Democrats strongly oppose the privatization plan, although they're happy with most of the rest of the bill.
"This privatization proposal gives a private corporation the power to tax the American public to pay for safe operations, and it hands over a public asset worth billions of dollars to a private corporation for free," DeFazio said. The corporation would effectively become a monopoly that picks winners and losers and decides routes, schedules, and slots based on profit margins, he said.
Airlines, the lobbying muscle behind the bill, have long said the fairest way to pay for the air traffic system is to have all aircraft operators pay fees for the services they use, such as controller-directed takeoffs and landings and government weather reports.
Most other aircraft operators oppose a fee system, which they say would shift a greater share of paying for the air traffic system away from airlines and onto them.
The model for Shuster's proposal is Canada, which shifted its air traffic operations to a nonprofit corporation about a decade ago. In the U.S., private contractors who provide air traffic control services at small airports general have lower costs than at FAA facilities because they hire fewer personnel and pay lower salaries.
The FAA has worked on its "NextGen" modernization program for more than a decade and says much progress has been made. Lawmakers and airlines say they have yet to see significant benefits from the billions of dollars spent on modernization and are deeply frustrated.
Shuster and Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., the aviation subcommittee chairman and the bill's co-sponsor, gained an influential ally Wednesday when the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents about 14,000 air traffic controllers, announced its support for the bill.
The bill also:
—Seeks to force the FAA to issue regulations governing the use of small drones more quickly by threatening to impose its own rules on small drone operations.
—Gives the FAA administrator the ability to waive safety rules for classes of commercial drone operations like limitation on how far and how high drones are allowed to fly and a prohibition on nighttime flights.
—Would continue to bar the FAA from issuing safety regulations banning cargo shipments of lithium batteries on passenger planes unless the International Civil Aviation Organization adopts a ban first.