Young: FAA privatization bill harms Alaska air travel

Photo: Mark Reed/KPLU.
Photo: Mark Reed/KPLU.

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A U.S. House committee is considering a bill that would make the nation’s air traffic controllers employees of a non-profit corporation, and shift financial responsibility for safe air travel away from taxpayers. Alaska Congressman Don Young argued against it this morning, but the air traffic controllers’ union supports the bill.

The prime supporter of the FAA remodel is Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Penn, who has the job Congressman Young used to have: chairman of House Transportation. In a video promoting the concept, Shuster says the FAA has spent billions trying to modernize but can’t keep pace with growth in air travel.

“And unless we head in a bold new direction, the system will become crippled with delays. American manufacturing jobs could move overseas, and our country could lose its lead in aviation,” the video says.
That’s why we need the Aviation Innovation Reform and Reauthorization Act, the AIRR Act.”

The bill would create a new Air Traffic Control Corporation, while the FAA would remain the safety regulator. Shuster says the government won’t be responsible for any debt the corporation takes on.

Young objects on several counts. For one, the Alaska Congressman says the airline industry would be over-represented on the board of the air traffic control corporation. These days, Young says, that means giving the reins to four major airlines.

Alaska Rep. Don Young. (File photo)
Alaska Rep. Don Young. (File photo)

“Four! And if they’re going to run this FAA, I don’t think the consumer is going to get the right representation on that board,” he said.

And, Young says, the new system would put Congress in the back seat, while giving the  president power to appoint two board members.

“Why should we let a president appoint them?” he asked. “This is our job as legislators! If we’re going to change the system, then let’s change it with us having some control over it, financially, and the board members should be appointed from the Congress. I’m not going to give any president any more authority! … We might as well have a king!”

Also, Young says the bill would undermine Essential Air Service by taking away its dedicated funding. The program subsidizes air travel to dozens of Alaska villages, and Young says it’s crucial to the state.

“That’s what serves my community,” he said. “I don’t have highways. I don’t have streets. I’ve got air.”

In Alaska, the proposal has alarmed aviation interests, including the Alaska Airmen Association, which represents private pilots and general aviation.  The bill would exempt non-commercial pilots from new user fees. But Adam White, who works on government affairs issues for the Alaska Airmen, says he doubts the exemption would hold. Eventually, White says, small-plane pilots could be subject to fees for contacting Air Traffic control.

“Our concern is that’s a huge safety issue, because a lot of folks simply won’t avail themselves to the services that would be there, and could be making decisions to fly into bad weather without the help of ATC.” :

White also questions the new model, as he reads it in the bill.

“Handing over all the FAA’s assets, with the navigation aids, the radio communication outlets,” White says, “all those things handed over to a private corporation, that if it fails, the way it’s currently written, our understanding is that the FAA would have to buy all that infrastructure back at market value.”

Air traffic controllers have objected to many past calls to privatize the FAA. But union president Paul Rinaldi testified in favor of this plan, as long as compensation and benefits remain unchanged. Rinaldi, head of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, says controllers have been devastated by budget uncertainty and hiring freezes. Rinaldi says the bill will help controllers get the modern equipment they need.

“And most importantly, better staffing,” he says. “We are crucially, crucially at this point with our staffing where controllers are having tough times to get breaks, take time off, to make sure that they have an appropriate amount of fatigue mitigation going on. Our staffing. We must address the staffing of our facilities.”

The bill will be up before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Thursday where member will have a chance to amend it.