No Plane No Gain

White House explores air traffic control split off

Politico / 3/29/2017 By Kathryn A. Wolfe and Lauren Gardner

The White House is beginning to engage more on the idea of separating air traffic control from the FAA, including holding a meeting with aviation groupson Tuesday, though exactly how the administration will proceed remains to be seen.

On Tuesday, DJ Gribbin, President Donald Trump’s special assistant for infrastructure policy, hosted a town hall with aviation groups to hear their ideas about separating air traffic control from the FAA.

According to attendees interviewed for this article, Gribbin and his team didn’t tip their hats about their own game plan. One person in attendance said White House staff noted that they had spoken with House Transportation ChairmanBill Shuster(R-Pa.) and had looked at his proposal.

“It seemed like they were very familiar with the ins and outs” of Shuster’s plan, but otherwise were mostly there to listen,the person said.

The White House fiscal 2018“skinny budget”endorsed taking air traffic control away from the FAA, saying the administration supported shifting it “to an independent, non-governmental organization,” though it didn’t address whether that should be for profit or not.

One aviation industry attendee noted that was one of the questions Gribbin and his staff askedon Tuesday, “what people’s opinions were about how, if you remove it from FAA, then what is it? Is it a for-profit, is it a nonprofit, is it still a government agency? I’m actually going to give the White House staff a lot of credit, they did a very good job of really, in my opinion, making it a listening session and hearing ideas, concerns.”

Attendees included Airlines for America, the Air Line Pilots Association, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, Delta Air Lines, the National Business Aviation Association, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, the American Association of Airport Executives, Airports Council International — North America, and former DOT Secretary Jim Burnley and former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.).

A White House spokeswoman confirmed the meeting, and said the administration is “still surveying all the options. We’re still in the early stages.”

The next chance for the administration to put more meat on the bones of what it supports will come when it releases its full fiscal 2018 budget request, expected in May. Until then, focus will remain on Capitol Hill, with the clock ticking on aSept. 30deadline.

So far, Shuster is holding the line, insisting that he’s not behind the curve — even though by this time last year both his and the Senate’s bills had been marked up — and that he’s still gunning to make theSept. 30deadline.

When asked why the bill wasn’t moving as fast this time around, Shuster noted that the previous FAA reauthorization came in the second half of the last Congress. “We’ve got a new administration, we’ve got new members, so we’re working on it.” When asked if the bill would be changed substantially, Shuster mostly demurred.

“It’s a work in progress. We’re working on it. That’s all I can tell you right now. So again, it’s a different scenario from last year,” he said.

When asked about a timeline, or discussions about floor time, Shuster said he wasn’t sure. “Haven’t had those conversations yet.” Later, he added “I knowSept. 30the FAA expires, so that’s the time frame I do have.”

Rep.Rick Larsen(D-Wash.), the ranking member on the House Aviation subcommittee, said there’s no “particular timeline to produce something just yet.”

“We haven’t even seen Secretary Chao in front of the committee for anything. So I think that I’d certainly like to hear what the administration thinks generally about the FAA bill, there are a lot of issues separate from ATC that are going to be part of it,” Larsen said.

Most stakeholders don’t expect significant forward momentum until May at the earliest — timing that, if it holds, brings an extension even closer to reality, especially as Congress trudges forward with summer appropriations season, not to mention a potentially a major infrastructure proposal and a tax code overhaul.

Lobbyists noted that both Commerce and Transportation committee staff have been talking with various interest groups, but that they have yet to give signals about major changes to Shuster’s legislation. Additionally, the basic dynamics arrayed against overhauling air traffic control seemingly remain the same.

“I don’t think anyone knows exactly what will happen. Floor time dictates some of it, a lot of it will be a leadership decision on if they do an infrastructure package, and it seems pretty clear some of that’s going to be dictated by tax reform,” one lobbyist said.

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