Privatizing air traffic controllers will fundamentally destablize air travel in the United States.

“Bad Bill and the Rush to Avoid Debate”

Washington, DC – On the eve of the House T&I Committee hearing on the AIRR Act, AAATP President Brad Bauman outlined opposition to Chairman Shuster’s proposal on the grounds that it puts companies and corporate interests ahead of those of middle class Americans.

Here’s what he said:

“In a Washington that is universally regarded as dysfunctional, we all too often see good policies delayed and the process stagnate. Unfortunately, in the last week Congress ushered in a bill that suffers from exactly the opposite problem: the legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is bad policy that is being rushed to a vote to avoid any serious debate that would expose its pitfalls. The bill, called the Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization, or AIRR Act is riddled with clauses that empower airlines to regulate themselves and help corporations at the expense of middle class Americans.

Like any large organization, the Air Traffic Control (ATC) system can and should improve; indeed—new technologies are already available and beginning to be implemented. The Federal Aviation Administration currently operates the largest and safest air traffic program in the world, and the reauthorization proposal that Republicans introduced this week would silo air traffic control in a private and under-regulated monopoly outside of the FAA. It will destabilize a system that is working to keep passengers safe. Numerous groups, from three different FAA labor unions to various key airline associations to consumer groups and local and federal elected officials, have spoken out against the privatization scheme. As many have argued, privatization in other countries has resulted in increased user fees and layoffs. That alone should give members pause before they support this plan.

But it is the specifics in this legislation that make it particularly troubling—and a study in crony capitalism.

The first issue is the makeup of the independent board that would be charged with overseeing air traffic control. The airlines get to nominate four of the twelve seats on the board. That is twice the number of seats that the FAA has, twice the number of seats that the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, and four times the number of seats that labor has. Such a plurality means that airlines will be empowered to regulate themselves. The business seats at the table have a clear majority, and would be able to raise fees on passengers indiscriminately. As for passengers, the bill explicitly rules out any way for passengers to challenge the reasonableness of the fees. Only “airspace users,” not consumers, travelers, or groups advocating on their behalf, can challenge the fees. But since airspace users—airlines—pass those fees onto travelers and will be helping to set the rates themselves, there will be no check on the fee increases whatsoever.

The second issue is the carve-out for corporate CEO travel. While commercial travelers will be hit with any fee increases approved by the private corporation, the proposed law exempts non-commercial air travel from any additional imposed fees.  This means that corporate CEOs flying on company jets avoid paying any fees, while consumers foot the bill.

Of course, as everyone knows, the legislative process is sausage making at its most grotesque. But Upton Sinclair himself might blanche at the documented close ties between Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and the lobbying team for Airlines for America (A4A).  A4A has been a stalwart supporter of privatization, and its member airlines get the bulk of the power to govern the new ATC. And the fact that it’s no surprise that groups like the Business Roundtable have come out in favor of privatization given the carve-out for their member CEOs shouldn’t make that so-called sweetener any less offensive.

Unfortunately, rather than have a full airing of these policy choices, Shuster is planning a truncated timeline for debate. He has scheduled a hearing on the bill only a week after introducing it, and a mark-up for the committee the following day. The recent highways bill was discussed for months, and achieved enormous bipartisan support. That model should be used again, rather than partisan attempts to rush legislation that will fundamentally change a system used by a billion Americans each year.

If the current political environment is a reaction to crony capitalism and government dysfunction, Republicans could not have written a bill that better encapsulates the problems Americans see with our government. It is shameful that Shuster and other members of Congress would allow a bad process to protect bad policy. The stakes are simply too high for American passengers. We deserve a full debate and examination of this proposal and a full explanation of the proposals that put companies and corporate interests ahead of those of middle class Americans.”