Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Republican House Measure Seeks Independent Air-Traffic Control Board: Measure would ratchet up federal oversight of pilot training, cybersecurity, passenger rights

An air traffic controller in the tower at Newark Liberty International Airport.


The Wall Street Journal
By Andy Pasztor
Updated Feb. 3, 2016 7:48 p.m. ET


House Republican leaders want to end government control of the U.S. air-traffic control system, while ratcheting up federal oversight of issues ranging from pilot training to cybersecurity to passenger rights.

The long-awaited measure—which calls for an independent, 11-member board to run and modernize traffic control—comes after a series of studies and reports by congressional investigators and other groups advocating major structural changes in the network that handles some 77,000 flights daily.

Hoping to blunt opposition from private pilots and business jet operators, the bill exempts both categories from proposed user fees intended to fund air-traffic control following a three-year transition period. Cargo airlines also are slated to get the same extension.

Under the concept developed by Pennsylvania Rep. Bill Shuster, the GOP chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, all three of those groups would continue to pay fuel taxes, but airlines would switch to user fees.

The measure was introduced Wednesday. Rep. Shuster, who has been laying the groundwork for the measure for two years, acknowledged in an interview that House Democrats have a markedly different approach to the topic and prospects in the Senate are uncertain.

The House may be voting on the disparate elements of the sweeping Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill by February, according to the head of the House panel, but action in the Senate is moving more slowly. GOP leaders on that side of Capitol Hill have opted to wait for House action before even introducing a companion measure. Leaders of both House and Senate appropriations panels recently came out strongly against the air-traffic control provisions in the FAA bill.

Nonetheless, Rep. Shuster, said at least a faction of House Democrats agree “something significant has to be done to change the way the FAA operates," adding that“ I feel relatively optimistic” the Senate wills move later in the year.

Referring to the current traffic control setup, subject to annual budget fights and bureaucratic delays affecting multibillion-dollar modernization projects, Rep. Shuster concluded: “Every report that has been written in the past 20 or 30 years has said this doesn’t work.”

The move prompted sharp opposition from Democratic leaders and some pilot union representatives Wednesday, with opponents predicting it likely would be mired in legislative quicksand.

Rep. Peter Defazio, the transportation panel’s ranking Democrat, threw down the gauntlet by telling reporters the proposal was overly complex snf failed to adequately protect taxpayers. Instead of helping speed up modernization efforts as intended, Rep. DeFazio argued, such massive changes would create huge distractions to ongoing equipment upgrades. Why “roll the dice with a private corporation?” he asked.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx was more guarded, putting out a brief statement urging a “spirit of bipartisanship” and promising to say more after determining if the bill “enhances safety, improves efficiency and advances aviation in general.”

In something of a surprise, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, long ambivalent about the concept, supported Rep. Shuster’s proposal after deciding anticipated benefits included stable funding, free from crippling congressional budget fights.

The country’s largest pilots union, the Air Line Pilots Association, on the other hand, weighed in with a host of concerns. On the potential spin-off of the air-traffic system, ALPA concluded the financing mechanism is inconsistent with the principle that all users pay “a fair share.” The union also said the measure failed to crack down on safety risks posed by lithium batteries carried as cargo in the bellies of passenger jets. The country’s leading business aviation group also came out swinging, even after conceding some members would be exempt from user fees.

The House bill also calls for enhanced voluntary reporting of safety incidents and mandates stepped-up airline efforts to ensure pilots maintain manual flying skills to cope with emergencies in the event automation fails or provides confusing guidance.

In addition, the bill gives the FAA greater leeway in allowing flights of small unmanned aircraft, particularly in rural areas. And it urges the agency to study possible ways to create a dedicated air-traffic management system for low-altitude drone operations.

In the area of passenger rights, the House GOP bill requires airlines to refund baggage fees to travelers if checked-in bags are delayed for more than 24 hours on domestic flights. A separate provision would ban travelers from talking on their cellphones during trips on U.S. airlines, and the measure also requires larger airports to provide private rooms in every terminal for nursing mothers.

Working with European air-safety regulators, the FAA and U.S. industry groups already are moving to find ways to safeguard flight-control computers and other digital systems on board aircraft from hackers. The bill pushes the agency to do more, including drafting a comprehensive plan addressing vulnerabilities.

With regard to passenger airlines transporting lithium batteries as cargo, the legislation stops short of what many safety experts and pilot union leaders have advocated. By calling for federal rules that are “consistent with international technical instructions,” the language appears to support the current ban against imposing regulations that are more stringent than global standards.

Original article can be found here:  http://www.wsj.com

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