Rep. Bill Shuster may be leaving the House, but the fight over air traffic control reform isn’t over yet.
Despite speculation that Shuster, R-Pa., would shift his attention from air traffic control to an upcoming infrastructure package his final year in office, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is reaffirming his commitment to air traffic control reform, along with other legislative priorities.
“There are other things the chairman intends to accomplish beyond an infrastructure package,” a senior committee aide said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we’ll figure it out.”
These additional priorities include the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, known as the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act, that has been championed by Shuster. The bill would take air traffic control from the FAA, creating an independent nonprofit body to manage the function.
“Air traffic control reform, as part of a broader FAA reform and reauthorization bill, continues to be one of my highest priorities, and I believe passing this legislation is what’s best for the future of America’s aviation system,” Shuster said in a statement.
Under the legislation, a 13-member board would oversee the nonprofit air traffic control organization and would have representatives from commercial, cargo, and regional airlines, general aviation, controllers, commercial service airports, and two at-large seats chosen by the other directors.
The legislation has bipartisan support and bipartisan opposition. Opponents are concerned that commercial airlines’ interests could overrule those of general aviation and that Congress would not be active in decisions concerning general aviation.
For example, groups including the National Business Aviation Association say the nonprofit would restrict the general aviation community’s access to airports. They argue Congress won’t have the power to ensure such access, and that commercial airlines would be prioritized ahead of general aviation’s.
The bill did not gain enough support as the expiration of the FAA’s legal authority approached at the end of September, and resulted in a six-month extension set to expire in March.
“It’s definitely tricky politically,” said Michael Sargent, a transportation and infrastructure policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.
As a result, proponents of the measure must continue to gather more backers if they want it to pass the House this year.
A senior committee aide said Shuster and other supporters have tried to get other members on board by ensuring they “understand the nature of this reform and why it will work here, and why it has worked in other countries.”
Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., who is a cosponsor of the bill, told the Washington Examiner that he initially opposed the legislation, but changed his mind after some of his requirements were included, such as ensuring that no user fees were imposed on any segment of general aviation. To help get others on board, he has shared his story with his colleagues, along with those affiliated with the general aviation community.
“It’s helped a lot with other members,” Graves said. “I’ve sat with a lot of members as well and just kind walked through the points and the things that I had to have … to protect [general aviation] and I think it’s made a huge difference.”
Robert Poole, a transportation expert with the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank, said another option that may be on the table is including an air traffic control reform provision in an infrastructure package, not in the FAA reauthorization. The White House says infrastructure is a priority for 2018.
The committee acknowledged that the Trump administration is interested in both infrastructure and air traffic control reform, and that they are prepared to move ahead in a manner that appears best.
“We can move forward on both efforts separately, or in conjunction somehow, and we’ll make that determination at some point,” a senior committee aide said.
Although Graves said it was hard to tell what impact, if any, Shuster’s retirement would have in advancing the legislation this year, he said it would allow Shuster to “concentrate 100 percent on the priorities at hand.”
The committee echoed similar sentiments and noted it will allow Shuster, who was already set to step down from his position as chairman after this year, to focus on issues such as the 21st Century AIRR Act and an upcoming infrastructure bill, rather than spend time campaigning.
“It does free him to focus and put all his energies into these priorities,” another senior committee aide said. “In an election year, of course, for any member who is running for reelection, they have to split their time.”
Although Poole admitted another short-term FAA reauthorization was possible in March, he believes it’s likely the air traffic control provision will move forward in the House.
“I think there’s a good chance the [air traffic control] provision will pass in the House,” Poole said.
But Sargent is a little more skeptical.
“I would definitely guess that any FAA reauthorization bill they do this year, if it is more than just the basic extension, it will be more watered down, it won’t be as ambitious,” Sargent said.
In the event that the air traffic control reform provision does not pass in the House before Shuster retires, Sargent said a new leader must take over the effort or watch it revert to a “think-tank style idea.”
“It’s definitely going to need a new champion in the Congress,” Sargent said. “Someone to rally the troops and put forward an ambitious proposal and put it on the floor.”
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