House Republican leaders are holding off for now on floor action for Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster’s multi-year bill to fund and restructure the Federal Aviation Administration, a move that raises questions about prospects for the bill’s controversial provision to spin off FAA air traffic control operations into a nonfederal nonprofit corporation.
Following the GOP leadership’s action, which a Hill source confirmed on Feb. 26, Shuster’s committee will work on drafting a temporary FAA extension, aiming to avoid a cutoff of funds before a current stopgap lapses on March 31.
Given that looming deadline, a new extension was viewed as likely even before the latest development.
Shuster, a Republican from Pennsylvania, said in a Feb. 26 statement, “The need for an extension was not a surprise and details about the short-term measure are still being discussed.”
Shuster’s committee cleared the six-year, $68-billion measure—the Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization, or AIRR, Act—on Feb. 11, on a 32-26 vote, including the air traffic control (ATC) provision. Besides its committee supporters, the ATC plan has other backers, including the air traffic controllers’ union.
But some other aviation groups opposed the plan, including the National Business Aviation Association. The transportation committee’s ranking Democrat, Peter DeFazio (Ore.), also objected to the ATC provision.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and other leaders on that panel also opposed the ATC spinoff, saying in a Feb 2 letter, “We cannot…support legislation that places air traffic control functions on autopilot and limits the ability of Congress to provide the annual oversight of our air traffic control system that our citizens and our communities deserve.”
Shuster is continuing to push for his ATC plan. He noted that “many current members of Congress have not seen a proposal such as this during recent FAA reauthorizations,” adding that he and other supporters of the bill will continue to discuss the legislation with fellow House members.
Shuster said, “But given the expected increase in passenger levels to one billion per year in the next decade, merely maintaining the status quo, while much easier, isn’t going to fix the underlying issues with aviation system efficiency, capacity and modernization we are attempting to address.”
A Senate FAA bill hasn’t been unveiled yet, but Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) “intends to introduce a long-term FAA reauthorization bill,” a committee aide said via email. He didn’t say when the long-term bill would be rolled out but added that Thune “will also support a short-term extension.”
Brian Deery, senior director of the Associated General Contractors of America’s highway and transportation division, says, “I think Shuster in his heart of hearts wants to do the [ATC spinoff]. But there’s a lot of pushback on that.”
Deery added, “I think the strategy seems to be to wait and see what the Senate’s going to do.”
DeFazio said via email: “An extension is unfortunately necessary to avoid the shutdown of critical FAA functions. However, I hope we can move forward and pass a straightforward, bipartisan FAA reauthorization without the risky and controversial [ATC] privatization scheme.”
For construction, a key provision in the AIRR Act is its $22.7-billion, six-year authorization for FAA’s Airport Improvement Program construction grants, an increase over current levels.