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Senate ignores Trump, rejects splitting up FAA

UPDATED: Thu., June 29, 2017

In this Sept. 27, 2016, file photo, a FAA Air Traffic Controller works in the Dulles International Airport Air Traffic Control Tower in Sterling, Va. (Cliff Owen / Associated Press)
In this Sept. 27, 2016, file photo, a FAA Air Traffic Controller works in the Dulles International Airport Air Traffic Control Tower in Sterling, Va. (Cliff Owen / Associated Press)
By Ashley Halsey Iii Washington Post

WASHINGTON – The Senate on Thursday ignored President Trump’s desire to lop more than 30,000 workers from the federal payroll, approving legislation that protects the Federal Aviation Administration from being split in two.

This month, Trump endorsed a House plan to spin off air traffic controllers and close 20,000 other workers into a nonprofit private corporation.

But the Senate opted to disregard the White House push to privatize the controllers and those working on modernizing the aviation system.

“I remain open to moving the FAA’s functions into a not-for-profit nongovernment body, but I also appreciate that sincerely held concerns exist,” Sen. John Thune, R.-S.D., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said Thursday as his committee approved a bill that would keep the FAA intact. “I hope and expect that we will consider this proposal more fully as the bill advances.”

The committee’s ranking member, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., was more blunt: “The support is not there on this committee or in the Senate.”

The bipartisan Thune-Nelson bill requires greater accountability by the FAA on the much-criticized pace of the modernization program, known as NextGen. It also includes new protections for airline passengers, deals with safety and privacy issues in the use of drones, and increases airport funding.

Airlines would be required to refund services, such as early boarding or seat assignments, that the passengers do not ultimately receive. Addressing another passenger complaint – shrinking seat sizes – the bill asks the FAA to review the safety implications of seat size.

With Congress facing a Sept. 30 deadline to approve FAA funding authorization, the privatization proposal is a big hurdle in an otherwise bipartisan agreement.

The House Transportation Committee on Tuesday approved an authorization bill that would create the nonprofit private corporation.

At issue is the FAA’s handling of a $36 billion NextGen program. Often described as a “GPS-based system,” in fact it is a far more complicated system that would move U.S. aviation into the 21st century. But Congress has grown increasingly frustrated with the FAA’s progress amid regular critical reports from oversight agencies.

Critics of the privatization plan argue that the corporation’s board would come to be dominated by the airlines, and they fear that this domination would come at the expense of those who operate small planes and corporate jets. More significantly, they worry that airline dominance would diminish service to smaller airports and those in remote, rural areas.

The proposal to break off more than half of the FAA’s workforce has divided the two unions that represent most of the workers

“Severing air traffic control from the federal government is an unnecessary undertaking for a system that is not broken,” Mike Perrone, president of the 11,000-member Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS) union, said in a statement Wednesday. “We believe that our national airspace system is a complex entity that works for all users of the system today because of its public structure and accountability to Congress and the American people.”

That position is counterbalanced by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), with almost 20,000 members, which supports the House bill.

“After extremely careful review, consideration and deliberation, we have decided to support the bill because it fully aligns with NATCA’s policies, practices and core principles,” said NATCA President Paul Rinalde. “This bill protects our workforce – including pay, benefits, retirement and collective bargaining rights.

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