In my almost three decades of experience on—or working with— Capitol Hill, I have come to the conclusion that Congress only has two speeds—glacial or lightning. In most instances, no matter how common sense or progressive the policy change you seek, one is resigned to the fact that it may take several sessions of Congress in order to achieve a policy goal. The typical holdup: timing. In other words, for various reasons, the stars just do not align—even if a proposal is recognized as helpful and noncontroversial. This is what made it especially satisfying last year when, after years of kicking the can down the road, NATA and other major associations in Washington were able to secure two important long-term changes in investment tax policy after years of short-term extensions.
As you could no doubt tell from the President’s column, when it comes to this year’s FAA reauthorization, we are in the equivalent of a congressional lightning round—and that’s when you have to be on your guard.
After years of seemingly endless policy forums, congressional “listening sessions,” and official hearings, the House Transportation Committee put pen to paper, drafted an FAA reauthorization bill, and released it for the world to see in early February 2016. At one level, the bill [H.R. 4441, the Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization (AIRR Act)] offered no surprises. The Chairman of the Transportation Committee, Representative Bill Shuster (R-PA), has been upfront with his intentions since the summer of 2015. Recall, he shared his thinking with NATA members at the 2015 Aviation Business Conference. Chairman Shuster believes that, despite the encouragement and additional authorities provided by Congress over the years, the FAA’s handling of modernization and operations is too broken to be fixed and offered his solution–separating air traffic control from the FAA and operating it as a not-for-profit, user fee-funded corporation.
We respectfully disagree. Changes in the relationship between the agency’s air traffic control operation and its safety regulatory component should be carefully viewed in terms of the problem to be addressed, and whether the solution will continue to maintain a stable, safe and efficient system that protects access for all users of our system. Creating a potentially adversarial relationship between the remaining portion of FAA and an air traffic control corporation will create unintended consequences. In the end, we concluded that, while this has been a healthy policy debate, focused policy initiatives will better achieve the goal of a more efficient and flexible agency, well positioned to maintain America’s dominance in aviation.
The general rule in Washington: the faster you try to move a piece of major legislation, the more likely the goal is to avoid delving into its specifics. So, you know what came next. The aviation community was expected to digest an almost 300-page proposal—including a major shift in the FAA’s organization and funding—and be prepared to share its views on it with congressional decision makers at a hearing one week later. Even more problematic, the bill was voted on by the House Transportation Committee the very next day.
NATA swiftly posted our analysis of the bill on our website. NATA staff briefed our Board, Presidents Council and our committees on its implications and provided lawmakers with testimony. The night before markup, we waded through approximately 100 filed amendments looking for the good and the bad. We also found time to rebut the contention made at the hearing on the legislation that charter operations were largely high-end passenger jets like G5s or G6s and their paying user fees was “fair.”
The AIRR Act survived the committee and vote — barely. The vote was along party lines and two pilot members, Republicans Sam Graves (R-MO) and Todd Rokita (R-IN), joined all Transportation Democrats in opposition. The next step in the Transportation Committee’s legislative blitz, a vote on the House floor was slated to occur shortly after committee consideration. That was when, with your help, the proposal started taking flak from all sides. The general aviation community, particularly NATA members, weighed in with their elected representatives through our special webpage (www.nata.aero/nocorporation). Facing united Democratic opposition, concerns from other major House committees impacted by the proposal, and conservatives with grave suspicions about whether such a proposal was really just an open-ended invitation to increase travel costs through user fees— the House Leadership chose, at least for the moment, to shelve the proposal and turn to other priorities.
As Tom mentioned in his column, the shame in all this is: absent the air traffic control corporation proposal, the remainder of the AIRR Act represents a serious, bipartisan effort to help the FAA operate in a more efficient manner. Thanks to the help of NATA’s committees, we proposed to policy makers a number of ideas that have, in fact, been incorporated in the legislation. However, the good in this case does not outweigh the threat the legislation poses to aviation businesses and, indeed, to all of general aviation.
Though the AIRR Act appears bottled up for the moment, know that corporation proponents will not just walk away, they have sunk too much time and energy into the effort. So if you have not already, I urge you to go to our website (www.nata.aero/ nocorporation) and engage with your Congressman and Senators on this issue.