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Panel Approves Bill That Spins Off Air Traffic Control

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved a six-year, $69 billion aviation reauthorization bill in early February that would spin off the nation’s air traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., and co-sponsor Frank A. LoBiondo, R-N.J., who pushed for the air traffic control provision, held most of the Republicans together for the 32-26 vote. Reps. Sam Graves of Missouri and Todd Rokita of Indiana were the only Republicans to join Democrats in opposition to the bill.

Shuster’s proposal would move the air traffic control operation to a separate corporate entity with the ability to issue bonds and borrow money in the private sector. The FAA would retain safety oversight.

Advocates of the spinoff hope that by giving the corporation the ability to raise funds, it would be better able to find capital to fund projects such as a new navigation system known as NextGen. The FAA’s handling of that technology has drawn strong criticism.

Ranking member Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., offered an alternative that would have restructured the FAA’s procurement and personnel practices and moved the Airport and Airway Trust Fund out of the reach of appropriators, the sequester and Office of Management and Budget directives. His alternative aimed to ensure that revenue collected from passengers would be invested in the aviation system. The panel rejected DeFazio’s amendment 25-34.

“The committee considered approximately 75 amendments during today’s meeting, and more than half of them were approved,” Shuster said in a statement. “Today’s open process led to many improvements to the legislation, and I look forward to moving ahead.”

Shuster said DeFazio’s “trust fund would become an ATM machine for the FAA administrator.”

The proposal to spin off air traffic control faces powerful opposition. Appropriators from both parties and both chambers have rejected the spinoff. And the Government Accountability Office issued a report the day before the Feb. 11 mark up with a long list of transitional issues that would be raised by a spinoff.

When he introduced the bill, Shuster said a corporation for air traffic control services would do a better job at managing passenger traffic projected to rise to 1 billion in the next decade.

DeFazio said Shuster’s proposed entity is “way too big to fail” and compared it to Wall Street.

Aviation subcommittee ranking member Rick Larsen, D-Wash., and Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., backed DeFazio in his criticism of the spinoff proposal.

“You can’t automatically assume that a private corporation — profit or not-for-profit — would get things done more efficiently than government,” Nadler said.

The aviation bill would authorize $51 billion for fiscal 2017 to 2019 and $18 billion for fiscal 2020 to 2022. The smaller authorization level in the past three years reflects the spinoff of air traffic control.

The bill also includes provisions to change the federal agency’s certification process for equipment meant to enable manufacturers to compete.

The panel returned to a topic that members have been fighting over for months: a provision that would pre-empt laws that guarantee meal and rest breaks for truck drivers, and thereby shield trucking companies from liability for not complying with state laws. The provision would affect 21 states and territories.

“This provision is an attack on states’ rights, an affront to the men and women trying to make a decent living in the trucking industry, and it has no place in an aviation bill,” DeFazio said.

The section was part of the highway bill of 2015 but didn’t make it through conference. Lawmakers in both parties and chambers are troubled by it, and DeFazio fears including it will jeopardize the bill’s passage.

“This provision is baggage that weighs down this bill even more,” DeFazio said. “The focus should be on getting the reauthorization legislation passed.”

The panel rejected 27-31 Rep. Grace F. Napolitano’s amendment that would strike the trucking section from the aviation bill. Napolitano, D-Calif., who received the backing of three Republicans and the opposition of one Democrat, is expected to offer her amendment again when the bill is considered on the House floor.

But the air traffic control spinoff dominated markup debate.

“It’s an airline bill, that’s what it is,” said Rokita, a pilot. “This is effectively letting the airlines run our national airspace.”

Rokita offered an amendment that would require the air traffic control entity’s board to be unanimous in any decision regarding access to airspace. Sam Graves joined him, but the majority prevailed in rejecting the proposed amendment.

Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., called the proposal the beginning of a model that would begin to privatize virtually every aspect of government. She said it was a “cautionary tale to rethink turning over taxpayer money to a private corporation.”

As Democrats sought to block an aviation reauthorization measure that includes the spinoff, Republicans sought to shape the structure of any entity spun off.

Integrating rules for the operation of small Unmanned Aircraft Services, or drones, has long been on the FAA’s agenda, and House Transportation and Infrastructure members made the issue a high priority.

“I am one of the many who are eager to see the FAA publish its final rule on small UAS operations.”Shuster said. “In the interim, Congress cannot let the enormous potential of UAS be missed.”

Lawmakers from both parties offered amendments that would loosen the restrictions for the operation of drones.

Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., received backing for his amendments that would allow the operation of UAS in public health emergencies, like exterminating malaria-transmitting mosquitoes, and for insurance purposes during disasters.

Rodney Davis, R-Ill., received panel support for his amendment that would implement a classification for micro unmanned aircraft services that are exempt from FAA regulation, as did Scott Perry, R-Pa., with an amendment for the carriage of cargo on small drones.

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., got panel approval of his proposal that the FAA should implement a point of sale registration system for unmanned aircraft services.

“The bill strikes a delicate balance between advancing integration and ensuring that the FAA preserves its safety mission through all phases of integration,” Shuster said.

Shuster’s revised version of the bill also won support from Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who in the hearing prior to the markup voiced his concern that the bill would penalize his state. Shuster supported an amendment that would exempt air carriers in Alaska from the new user fees.

The panel adopted an amendment that would ban vaporizers and electronic cigarettes on passenger flights, overcoming opposition from Shuster, who compared the proposal to an attempt to ban bad breath or body odor. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., his vaporizer lit, said the amendment would stifle innovation and people’s opportunity to quit smoking.

In a 25-33 vote, the panel rejected DeFazio’s amendment to regulate the transport of lithium batteries, a concern that was raised by the Airline Pilots Association earlier this week.

The Boeing Co. said in a statement it was in favor of a universal rule related to the transport of lithium batteries, and that it was working with the International Civil Aviation Organization to establish safe and effective solutions.

“Lithium batteries are an accident waiting to happen,” DeFazio said. He introduced his proposal with a video that showed an airplane exploding due to a lithium-ion accident. His amendment sought to separate the regulating power from the International Civil Aviation Organization, which he dubbed “pathetic” and a “tombstone authority.”

The current aviation authorization (PL 114-55)expires on March 31.

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