Thursday, February 11, 2016

House Republicans move ahead with plan to shift 38,000 Federal Aviation Administration workers

House Republicans moved ahead with their plan to spin 38,000 federal workers into a private nonprofit corporation, beating back an effort by Democrats that would have preserved the Federal Aviation Administration.

The transfer of about 80 percent of the FAA’s workforce to a private company is the centerpiece of a six-year reauthorization bill for the agency. The bill would create a federally chartered corporation to oversee the movement of aircraft in flight and take over a $40 billion modernization of the air-traffic-control system.

An amendment that would have derailed creation of the corporation was defeated in the House Transportation Committee Thursday on a straight party-line vote, with 34 Republicans prevailing over 25 Democrats.

The bill also would prohibit in-flight cellphone calls, require the FAA to move more rapidly in regulating drones, require airlines to refund baggage fees if bags are overdue by more than 24 hours, give flight attendants an additional hour of rest between flights and ban the use of electronic cigarettes on airplanes.

The committee rejected an amendment that would have allowed the FAA to regulate the shrinking size of seats aboard airplanes.

It also voted against a proposal to allow the FAA to regulate shipment of lithium-ion batteries, seen as a fire hazard and blamed for the 2010 crash of a cargo plane that was carrying 80,000 of them.

Two years after that crash, Congress prohibited the FAA from imposing restrictions on transporting lithium-ion batteries that ­exceeded the standards of the ­International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The National Transportation Safety Board proposed this year that their shipment be regulated on all passenger planes.

While it is barred from regulating battery shipments, the FAA warned last month that they pose a “potential risk for a catastrophic hull.”

“Lithium batteries are a disaster waiting to happen,” said Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (Ore.), ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee. “Why should we hobble the FAA? I would hate to think we’re going to tie the hands of the FAA to regulate these batteries.”

As the bill emerges from committee, it will fall to Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) to smooth its passage on the House floor, a daunting prospect during a presidential election year. Though most of the bill won bipartisan support, Democrats said the attempt to move 14,000 air-traffic controllers and 24,000 other FAA workers to a private entity was a “poison pill.”

“I fear these bipartisan proposals are going to be jeopardized because of this effort to spin off the air-traffic controllers,” said Rick Larsen (Wash.), ranking Democrat of the aviation subcommittee. “I don’t think that experimenting with the most complicated airspace in the world comes without a lot of risk.”

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has supported the plan to move its members to a private entity, as have all the major airlines except Delta.

The business of directing air traffic and modernizing the system with which it is done has been transferred to private hands in several other Western nations.

“The FAA’s failing to modernize its infrastructure,” Shuster said. “If we don’t act, we’re going to fall farther behind.”

The FAA has been criticized for delays and cost overruns as it struggles to elevate its operations from a radar-based system to one that relies on GPS.

The project, known as NextGen, has been estimated to cost $40 billion, but an inspector general’s report said the price tag may double or triple by the time the full system is installed. The FAA has spent $6 billion on it so far.

The FAA’s failure to make sufficient progress was reflected in a harshly critical report last year by the National Research Council.

The council said that “the original vision for NextGen is not what is being implemented today” and that “not all parts of the original vision will be achieved in the foreseeable future.”

An inspector general’s report last month said that the cost of NextGen had increased by $3.8 billion over original estimates.

Citing the success of the Canadian model, Shuster and House Republicans say that the NextGen modernization program will move faster if it is placed in the hands of a private board appointed by the airlines, airplane owners and the unions. The corporation would be empowered to collect charges and fees from any air-traffic users, but operators of small private planes would be exempted.

The issue of just how far airplanes should be allowed to fly from Reagan National Airport arose briefly at the hearing, as Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) offered up an amendment that would increase the minimum allowable distance from 1,250 miles to 1,425 miles.

It has been a hot-button issue in Congress for many years. National Airport is five miles from the Capitol dome. By contrast, Dulles International Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport are 30 miles away from Capitol Hill, and it can take three or four times longer to get there.

Desiring to be thoroughly transparent, Farenthold acknowledged that the expansion he proposed would allow for direct flights to his home town: Corpus Christi, Tex., 1,384 miles from National Airport. He withdrew the amendment, however, after bipartisan opposition from Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.).

“This has been a perennial problem for this region,” said Norton, who also has wrestled with issues of noise created by jets flying in and out of National.

Comstock, who represents a Northern Virginia district, pointed out that “Reagan National is small and doesn’t really have room to expand” to accommodate more flights.

Farenthold was gracious in defeat, but he cautioned that “this is an issue about which we’ll hear again.”

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