- House authorizer wants certainty for air traffic control
- Bill could come in next several weeks
Air-traffic controllers wouldn’t miss a paycheck during a future government shutdown under a proposal that House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio plans to unveil in the coming weeks.
Existing aviation user fees would flow directly to Federal Aviation Administration programs, preventing a lapse in government funding from shuttering large swaths of the agency as the 35-day partial government shutdown did, according to DeFazio (D-Ore.)
An increase in unpaid controllers calling out sick from centers in Washington and Florida forced the temporary closure of New York’s LaGuardia airport Jan. 25, helping to precipitate President Donald Trump‘s decision that day to end the partial shutdown.
“The projections are over a decade that we have, with existing taxes, we will collect more than enough money to do everything we’re planning to do in terms of, you know, getting staffing up to appropriate levels and implementing NextGen,” DeFazio said in an interview. “So the question is, since we’re raising the money, since we’re collecting the money during shutdowns, why are they shut down?”
It’s an old idea—a Democratic alternative to a proposed spinoff of the air-traffic control system —that has reemerged because of the effects of the shutdown on the FAA. It could also lay to rest the push for moving air-traffic control out of the federal government, championed by former committee Chairman Bill Shuster‘s (R-Pa.).
The idea of dedicated funding for FAA operations enjoys support from the airline industry and the union for controllers. Putting FAA funding on autopilot is likely to stir up a backlash from House appropriators, who are uncomfortable with ceding their power to set funding levels.
“Isn’t it time stakeholders, isn’t it time aviation people, to say there’s got to be a better way to fund aviation?” said Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, in a speech to the Aero Club of Washington on Jan. 29 in Washington. “I certainly think it is.”
DeFazio’s committee is working on a proposal to move the FAA off budget and is sharing paper copies of the bill with relevant aviation lawmakers, according to a congressional aide.
Rinaldi said that the Airport and Airway Trust Fund—which collects money from a variety of user fees on airline tickets, foreign-carrier flights into the U.S., and fuel purchases—could have been used to keep the FAA operating normally during the shutdown.
The fund had a balance of $6.5 billion in uncommitted money, which could have been tapped as an emergency fund to pay salaries and operational expenses, he said.
Additionally, the fund’s revenue has grown steadily since 2009 as airlines became more profitable and the cost of tickets rose. As a result, it could be used to pay for most or all of the FAA’s budget just as a similar trust fund covers the cost of highway grants to states, Rinaldi said.
The Congressional Budget Office projects that the Airport and Airway Trust Fund balances will be $16 billion in fiscal 2019, reaching $22 billion by fiscal 2021. The CBO also projects trust fund surpluses beyond estimated outlays, with $2 billion in surplus in fiscal 2019 up to $3 billion in fiscal 2021.
What’s the Plan?
DeFazio didn’t offer details on what his plan would look like, but he has raised a similar idea in the past.
He offered an amendment during a February 2016 committee markup of the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act of 2016 to take the Airport and Airway Trust Fund off budget.
The amendment would have made the trust fund not subject to the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 or legal requirements from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Under the proposal, the trust fund wouldn’t be subject to appropriation. Any additional funding needed for the FAA operations account would need to be appropriated from the general fund of the Treasury.
The proposal was rejected along party lines, including one notable “Nay” from Rep.Sam Graves (R-Mo.), now ranking member on the transportation committee.
Major airlines, many of which are represented by Airlines for America, have backed Shuster’s effort to privatize air traffic control. The group was more circumspect when asked about using the trust fund to support the FAA.
“It is clear that the pressures and strains of a shutdown are not sustainable for the system, the dedicated professionals who run it or the 2.3 million passengers who fly each day. We urge elected leaders to continue working together to identify a solution that ensures our nation’s airspace can operate without disruption,” Vaughn Jennings, spokesman for A4A, said in an email.
When DeFazio was leading the charge in the last several years against a spinoff, he found ready partners among appropriations leaders of both parties and from both chambers.
The concept of keeping the FAA and air traffic control within the government, but with a dedicated funding stream, has at least some support among transportation appropriators.
“I think it’s a thoughtful idea because the FAA is a critical function of government. If we could structure it a way that it will always be operating and not because of compelling people to come in and work without pay, that’s probably a step forward,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said in an interview when asked about creating an FAA trust fund.
“I think it’s a good proposal and should be considered,” he added.
The bill, however, would begin in the House and there newly empowered Democrats on the appropriations committee may be less inclined to cede their power over the nation’s airspace in their spending negotiations, several House aides said.
With assistance from Sarah Babbage