WASHINGTON – The move to privatize more than 30,000 Federal Aviation Administration workers who direct airplanes in flight and are responsible for a $35.8 billion modernization program continued to gather momentum this week with support from an influential transportation think tank.
“It’s not like this has just arisen this year, or arisen with the latest (White House) budget proposal. This is something that has been on the table and has been talked about since the Clinton administration, at least,” said Robert Puentes, president of the nonpartisan Eno Center for Transportation.
The center has released a 63-page study that makes the case for creating a nonprofit corporation to run 14,000 air traffic controllers and more than 16,000 FAA workers employed on the NextGen project – the agency’s program to modernize the air-traffic system. Puentes, former transportation secretary James H. Burnley and former senator Byron L. Dorgan, D-N.D., plan to explain their proposal at an appearance Tuesday.
Severing the workers from the federal payroll was endorsed last week by the Trump administration, and a renewed effort is expected in the House after an attempt last year won committee support but never received a vote on the floor.
The central issue has not been the FAA’s stewardship of aviation safety, but a decade of harsh criticism from within the government and from several major airlines over its handling of the NextGen project.
Though elements of the program have come online, reports by the Government Accountability Office and the Transportation Department’s inspector general have portrayed the modernization effort as bogged down in bureaucracy.
The FAA also has been hamstrung by government shutdowns, sequestration and the failure to reauthorize its funding.
“This is about the future, and NextGen, and the federal government’s inability to get that deployed despite reams and reams and reams of reports from the GAO and the office of the inspector general – and various commissions, both Republicans and Democrats – who have talked about this over the years,” Puentes said.
Burnley and Dorgan, co-chairmen of Eno’s Aviation Working Group, produced a study that says spinning the controllers and NextGen into an independent nonprofit would create a corporation that could be funded through airline and airport fees, escaping the uncertainty of federal funding.
The cost of an airline ticket includes a half-dozen taxes that flow into an aviation trust fund. There’s also a federal tax on aviation fuel.
Much of what the Eno report outlines mirrors the proposal that House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., anticipates reintroducing before the current FAA funding expires in September.
It would transfer the relevant FAA assets to the corporation at no cost, protect the pay scales and retirement plans of transferred workers, create an entity that could issue bonds to fund its investments and be run by an executive and board of directors.
The board Shuster envisions would include two federal appointees, four airline representatives, three representatives of the general aviation sector, and one representative each from the aerospace industry, the controllers union and the pilots union.
Though the bill was approved by Shuster’s committee last year, opposition from the Senate effectively blocked it. After Trump’s endorsement last week, several of the GOP senators who opposed the legislation last year were reluctant to express renewed reservations.
Some of the fears those lawmakers voiced last year were that it would not benefit rural areas or the general aviation community that flies noncommercial aircraft.
“There’s really nothing in here that would do anything negative for rural places or small communities,” Puentes said. “General aviation are big opponents, but they would be represented on the governing body.”
Some House and Senate members also questioned the propriety of handing federal assets to a private corporation at no cost.
“The assets actually have been paid for by the traveling public already,” Puentes said, although he conceded that, “As part of the negotiation they would probably settle on some price that would be paid to move things over from federal hands.”
He said it’s too early to tell whether Trump’s endorsement of the proposal will carry the day with the Republicans who control Congress.
“It probably would be the largest reform to take place in the nation’s aviation system in a generation or more, so it’s time has definitely come in terms of everything aligning. Whether that results in political alignment, it’s tough for me to say,” Puentes said.
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