Senate Hearing on FAA Reauthorization—will Congress make its Deadline?

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What can one glean from the Tuesday’s hearing entitled FAA Reauthorization: Air Traffic Control Modernization and Reform?

The discussion about FAA Reauthorization was formally initiated over eight months ago. On May 19, the Senate Commerce held a full committee hearing on the subject and the speakers which was empaneled was impressive and reflected the breadth of opinions. The existing FAA authority is scheduled to terminate September 30, 2015. While that’s 130 or so days away, that is VERY, VERY soon on the Congressional calendar, which has 39 days devoted to holidays. As several Senators mentioned during the Senate Hearing, THIS Congress is committed to meeting that milestone unlike past Reauthorization bills!

Chairman Thune’s opening statement really did not disclose his opinion on whether the FAA should be privatized, whatever the form. To the extent that the Members mentioned their preference as to the next action to be taken in this bill, there was far from a consensus. Sen. Nelson, the ranking minority cited that the Department of Defense and Delta Airlines had concerns about transfer of the ATC to private hands.

From the testimony of the witnesses and the comments by the Members, the list of alternative FAA organization ran to three models:

  • a federal government corporation,
  • a non-profit entity and
  • separation of the ATC operational functions from the FAA regulatory administration, but both still within the federal government

Senator Wicker (R-MS) added a fourth option; Congress does its job and provides the dollars & resources which the FAA needs to fulfill its mission. It is interesting to hear a Member of Congress lay the blame on what many think is the real problem—Congress.

Administrator Huerta repeated his prior theme that the DoT/FAA is open to considering change, but seems comfortable with its progress on NextGen. Unfortunately, a couple of the Senators did not recognize that his job is aviation safety and asked him whether zip code pricing is economically discriminatory and whether an airline’s raising fare between New York and Washington during the Amtrak crash was “gouging”?

Former Governor Engler and former Senator Dorgan testified on behalf of The Business Roundtable and of the Eno NextGen working group respectively. Both independent organizations opined on the above three alternatives, but both witnesses admitted that there was no consensus solution on what is the appropriate form.  One of the Senators asked his former colleague whether everyone on the panel was on the Eno working group and the Senator/witness had to say no. Whereupon, Ed Bolen, President and CEO of NBAA, added that his group withdrew from the Eno effort when its concerns were not being incorporated in the work product.

United President and CEO Jeff Smisek, on behalf of A4A, stated that there was consensus within the association’s members for “a non-profit corporation operating the ATC system, with independent, multi-stakeholder board governance free from political influence over decision-making.” But even among this organization with similar economic and operational perspectives, Mr. Smisek had to admit that Delta Airlines has serious reservations!

Paul Rinaldi, President of NATCA, emphasized that the FAA must have a stable source of funding.

The last witness, NBAA’s Bolen made a convincing argument about the value of GA/BA to the rural communities and the national economy. He then emphasized that “the public airspace must be managed in the public’s benefit” and if Congress would privatize the FAA, it would be an unwarranted “abdication, abrogation, relegation and delegation.” The sine quo non is that any alteration of the FAA’s organization must retain Congressional oversight of rates/fees and system access. He mentioned a recent conversation with a European ATC regulator making the case that limiting access to business aviation was an appropriate policy decision. The NBAA’s and all of general aviation’s views are 180° from A4A’s.

NATA’s President and CEO, Thomas Hendricks submitted comments which were wary of the privatization.

With less than 100 legislative days, one may not be optimistic about the likelihood of timely enactment of the FAA Reauthorization before October 1, 2015.

NOTICE: FAA Reauthorization: Air Traffic Control Modernization and Reform

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