Air Traffic Control Privatization Architect Abandons Effort

Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., introduced the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization Act last year. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., introduced the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization Act last year. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

The leading House proponent of a stalled effort to move the nation’s air traffic controllers from the Federal Aviation Administration to a private nonprofit entity announced Tuesday that the proposal is effectively dead.

Last year, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., introduced the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization Act (H.R. 2997), which, among other things, would spin 30,000 federal employees responsible for air traffic control at U.S. airports into a private nonprofit entity governed by a board made up of representatives from airlines, employee unions, and general aviation and airport trade groups.

The bill got the endorsement of President Trump, who held a signing ceremony for the principles of the bill last June. But although the House Transportation Committee, which Shuster chairs, advanced the bill along party lines that month, senators were resistant to the plan, and the bill never received a vote on the House floor.

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In a statement, Shuster lamented that the bill did not receive the support needed to pass.

“Many, including myself, continue to believe that the air traffic control provisions of the 21st Century AIRR Act are good government reforms, and necessary for the future efficiency, effectiveness, and safety of our entire nation’s aviation system and its users,” he said. “Despite an unprecedented level of support for this legislation—from bipartisan lawmakers, industry, and conservative groups and labor groups alike—some of my own colleagues refused to support shrinking the federal government . . . cutting taxes and stopping wasteful spending.”

Last September, Congress approved a six-month extension of FAA’s authorization, averting a partial shutdown of the agency until March 31. With that deadline now a month away, Shuster said he would work with Sen. John Thune, chairman of the Senate Commerce Science and Transportation Committee, on a long-term reauthorization bill for the agency.

Although the National Air Traffic Controllers Association formally endorsed Shuster’s proposal for providing budget certainty and preserving collective bargaining agreements, the news is a win for some federal employee unions, which had argued that the plan was but one piece of a larger effort to cut the federal payroll and outsource public services.

“This is a huge victory for air traffic safety and the traveling public,” said Andi Parker, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees Local 1340, which represents FAA employees. “Neither the science nor the data was there to show proof to the claim that privatization will increase safety or save money. In fact, the evidence dictated the exact opposite.”

NFFE President Randy Erwin drew parallels between the air traffic control debate and the ongoing issue of health care for veterans.

“Now that a wholesale attempt to privatize the FAA is off the table, we must remain vigilant against attempts to discredit the FAA through intentional underfunding and understaffing,” Erwin said. “This is the next page in the privatization playbook, and it is the same playbook currently deployed in the effort to privatize the Department of Veterans Affairs.”

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