In September, the House could vote on the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act (H.R. 2997), introduced by Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.). The bill would turn the Air Traffic Control (ATC) system into a standalone government-sanctioned, non-profit corporation and reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for fiscal years 2018-2023.
While not perfect, the 21st Century AIRR Act represents a substantial improvement over American’s current aviation system that has fallen well behind our foreign counterparts due to excessive government regulation and a broken aviation finance system. Separating air traffic control services from federal government bureaucrats will allow the new entity to innovate and improve while ensuring safety remains the number one priority of FAA oversight.
Heritage Action expressed a number of concerns with last year’s version of this bill and laid out four critical changes before moving forward, including the Budget Committee “ensur[ing] that the BCA caps in 2020 and 2021 are adjusted down” to reflect the bill’s projected savings and the Ways and Means Committee “report[ing] their tax-reducing portion of the bill.”
In addition to tackling those problems, H.R. 2997 addressed several critically flawed labor provisions identified by conservatives. Michael Sargent, Policy Analyst in Transportation and Infrastructure at The Heritage Foundation explains in his recent report 2018 FAA Reauthorization: Potential for Positive Air Traffic Control Reforms, But More Policy Improvements Needed:
Significantly, the bill also improves on the 2016 AIRR Act by explicitly laying out penalties for workers who participate in a strike, work stoppage, or slowdown against the corporation, and ensures speedy resolution of labor disputes (Sections 91109 and 91107, respectively). Furthermore, Section 91104 prohibits supervisors and managers from joining a union, another improvement over the 2016 AIRR Act.
Reforming our nation’s air traffic control services would not represent a significant improvement over the status quo if the new corporation is hamstrung by union demands. These updated labor provisions in the 21st Century AIRR Act ensure air traffic control services cannot be held hostage by labor unions—ensuring a key Reagan legacy is preserved.
Congress could take additional steps to strengthen the bill by 1) uncapping the Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) and lowering Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grants and ticket taxes proportionally so our nation’s airports can become self-sufficient, 2) eliminating the wasteful essential air service (EAS) program that “subsidizes convenience for a small group of travelers at the expense of taxpayers and the overall aviation system,” and 3) establishing federalism in the regulation of small unmanned aircraft operations in low altitude airspace. These are important policies that deserve full, open debate and votes on the House floor.
These conservative reforms would benefit both the consumer and taxpayer, but as Sargent acknowledges, the bill is still “an improvement over the existing system and a step in the right direction for establishing an independent, market-driven provider of air traffic control” especially in light of the disappointing Senate proposal that “solidifies the broken status quo and exacerbates many existing problems.”
Some members of Congress remain opposed to the 21st Century AIRR Act due to concerns expressed by the General Aviation (GA) community. Those claims stand in stark contrast to the degree to which the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee attempted to appease their concerns. For example, the bill exempts GA aircraft from all future fees levied by the new corporation in Section 90313(d)(7) while also providing them two seats on the new corporate board. These provisions alone are generous considering under the current system, business jets pay less than 1 percent of total aviation taxes that support air traffic control but account for more than 10 percent of controlled operations.
Congress should not allow special interest groups to undermine substantial reforms to our broken aviation system in an effort to protect the status quo. As The Heritage Foundation wrote in 1982, “The only interest groups likely to oppose [a private sector approach] are general aviation and the FAA bureaucracy itself.” The reforms included in the 21st Century AIRR Act will help modernize and improve the system, spur innovation, and increase consumer choice to the benefit of the aviation community as a whole.