Senate, House Clash Over Privatizing FAA

The Senate on Tuesday approved a measure to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, concluding a prolonged debate over legislation to keep the agency functioning through September 2017.

The reauthorization would address airport security, drone regulations and hiring reforms. Unlike its counterpart in the House, however, it does not de-federalize air traffic control.

The House’s Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization bill would remove 30,000 employees from the federal payroll, transitioning air traffic control responsibilities to a non-profit corporation. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved the legislation, but it has yet to receive a vote on the House floor.

While air traffic controllers would no longer be federal employees under the measure, their union actually approves of the overhaul. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has voiced its displeasure with the ebbs and flows of short-term funding bills, threatened and actual government shutdowns, threatened FAA-specific shutdowns and sequestration. Moving air traffic control to a corporation would bring more stability and remove partisanship from agency operations, the group and other backers of the plan have said.

The Senate bill focuses on modernizing air traffic control and requiring FAA to bring in more qualified employees. Lawmakers in the upper chamber declined to take up any move toward privatization, and took a much more measured approach than the House's six-year authorization bill.

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FAA is currently operating on a stopgap, six-month authorization bill that will keep the agency operating through mid-July. The two chambers in Congress still appear far apart on reaching an agreement. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., author of the AIRR Act and chairman of the transportation committee, said he appreciated the Senate’s work but continued to push for his de-federalization plan.

“Transformational air traffic control reform is absolutely necessary to end the unacceptable status quo at the FAA and to ensure the future of America’s aviation system,” Shuster said. The chairman vowed to “take a look at” the Senate measure, but would commit only to “working with” the upper chamber to finalize a plan.

NATCA praised some of the hiring reforms and other provisions in the Senate bill, but said it did not fully address FAA’s staffing shortfall. The group said the measure was “only one step in the lengthy legislative process.”

Shuster’s legislation would keep the FAA intact, but it would be tasked solely with a safety regulatory mission. All air traffic responsibilities and employees would be moved to the corporation governed by a board of directors that would represent aviation system users.

“This is not a new form of federal bureaucracy or a government-sponsored enterprise,” Shuster has said of his proposal. 

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