July | August 2017







Federal Aviation Administration Debate
Takes Off in Congress

By Leslie Haymon, CSG policy analyst and Michael Carabello, CSG graduate fellow
As Congress prepares to return to Washington, D.C., a number of legislative deadlines are fast approaching. Among these is the deadline to re-authorize the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, which has been operating under temporary extension since July 5. Rather than simply extending the FAA again, Congress is trying to pass a full re-authorization, which would allow them to substantially modify the organization and its funding. With nearly all of the nation’s 5,600 airports owned and operated by state and local governments, the proposed changes would have sweeping effects across the states. As Congress looks to tackle grant funding, privatization, pilot training reform and new drone regulations, a lot is at stake for the states this year.
Grant Funding
Both the House and Senate versions of the bill include funding for state governments to improve and maintain their aviation infrastructure. Under both plans, the Airport Improvement Program, one of the FAA’s largest grants, would receive a boost of about 12 percent. Meanwhile, Essential Air Service, which supports airports in rural areas, would receive a boost of 2-4 percent in the House version while maintaining its current funding in the Senate version. With this authorization in place until 2023, the increased financial stability would allow state and local governments to better plan their projects.
Privatization of Air Traffic Control
The most controversial proposal, however, is the bid by the House to privatize air traffic control, removing it from the FAA and establishing a private, nonprofit organization. H.R. 2997 would create an American Air Navigation Services Corporation, or AANSC, which would be headed by 13 board members, with representatives from airlines, airports and government agencies.
Central to the privatization debate is the FAA’s delayed implementation of the “NextGen” system of air traffic control set out in the Vision 100-Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act. Some of the reforms under the NextGen system include GPS-based air traffic control, information management programs, low-visibility auto-landing and digital clearance transferring. Proponents believe that privatizing air traffic control would allow for faster implementation of these reforms and detach it from congressional budget battles.
However, the proposal has drawn criticism from many sides. Since the AANSC would be detached from the federal government, its main source of funding would be user fees, which would be paid primarily by airlines. A 2016 study commissioned by Delta Airlines, the only major airline opposed to privatization, found that ticket prices could increase as much as 29 percent under private air traffic control.
Additionally, some are concerned about the priorities of a private AANSC.
“If you go to a private system where you have commercial airlines and private interests overseeing air traffic control and funding, then it makes sense that they would want to allocate and direct resources toward those big hubs that they care about most and away from rural communities,” said Selena Shilad, executive director of the Alliance for Aviation Across America on the Agritalk radio show.
On the other hand, the Senate’s authorization would keep air traffic control under the FAA and introduce congressional oversight. S.1405 looks to reform the FAA by setting annual NextGen performance goals and collecting reports on the FAA’s progress. Additionally, the Senate is looking to combat the growing pilot shortage, which has hit rural areas particularly hard as regional airlines struggle to find licensed pilots. Their version would reduce the required number of flight hours from 1,500 down to 1,000 for candidates who complete “structured and disciplined training schools.”
Pilot Training
The 1,500 flight rule has its genesis in 2009, when Colgan Flight 3407 crashed into a house in New York after the pilots failed to respond to indicators that the plane was stalling. In response, Congress passed the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010, which required commercial pilots to have 1,500 hours of flight training to get their pilot’s license.
This move was celebrated politically, but met with a mixed response from the industry. Indiana state Rep. Ed Soliday, who is a member of CSG’s Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, as well as a pilot; former vice president of safety, security and quality assurance at United Airlines; and technical expert in the Colgan crash, is skeptical about the 1,500 hour rule.
“I [challenge] anyone to show me the difference between a 1,000-hour and 1,500-hour pilot,” Soliday said.
He said a military pilot goes into combat with fewer than 1,000 hours of training. In addition, Soliday said he has never seen data that would justify 1,500 hours and, therefore agrees with Sen. John Thune on the amendment.
However, Soliday also stated that he would prefer to see the FAA's experts, rather than Congress, decide these numbers.
One area where Congress seems to be in agreement, however, is the issue of clarifying existing drone regulations. The drone industry has sought additional regulatory clarity in recent years, arguing that the development of the sector is dependent on Congress solidifying the legal and regulatory landscape. Both the House and Senate’s bills would allow for the testing of beyond visual line of sight operations, a key component in package delivery, and direct the secretary of transportation to issue a final rule allowing drones to carry property and deliver packages. With these questions resolved, companies such as Amazon and Walmart would be able to fully implement their drone delivery systems.
In addition to expanding opportunities for commercial drone use, both bills seek to study and clarify the role of state, local and tribal governments in monitoring and regulating drones. The House bill directs the inspector general of the Department of Transportation to conduct a study of potential authority gaps above 400 feet off the ground. Meanwhile, the Senate simply directs the Government Accountability Office to conduct a general study of authority gaps.
Soliday said he hopes these drone provisions make it through in order to provide state leaders with clarity regarding authority. He said there are two issues.
“One, is even with the things we have [clarified] now there's got to be cooperation with local authorities, there’s not enough FAA and FBI agents to enforce [these regulations],” said Soliday. “Two, is the issue of identifying who [a drone] belongs to, and part of this bill deals with that."
The current proposals would clarify the authority of state and local officials to ground drones in cases of emergencies, which local authorities had been pushing for in his state, he added.
Despite the need to re-authorize the FAA and implement reforms, there are many other pressing matters on Congress’ agenda. With just 12 legislative days scheduled in September, it is possible that Congress will simply move for an extension to the FAA. While the controversial issues such as air traffic control privatization may not be addressed this cycle, it is possible that the less controversial reforms, especially those on drones, would be included in any such extension.