Air Traffic Control Reform in Election Season

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) is facing Democratic candidate Art Halvorson in the general election. Mr. Halvorson recently released an ad targeting Rep. Shuster’s relationship with an Airlines for America lobbyist and suggesting that this relationship led to a carve-out provision being added to the air traffic control reform legislation sponsored by Rep. Shuster. This raises an important aviation policy issue, one in which CEI has a long-standing interest. (See CEI’s “Air Traffic Control Reform: FAQ” for more on the legislative proposal.)

The reforms championed by Rep. Shuster represent an important step in moving the United States aviation system into the 21st century. The bill would have created a nonprofit ATC Corporation to take over air traffic control operations from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Organization. Instead of aviation taxes and general revenue bailouts of the federal Airport and Airway Trust Fund, this nonprofit would rely on aircraft user fees.

Yet one provision included in the bill would have exempted “noncommercial aircraft operations” from the ATC Corporation’s user fees (§ 90311(c)(4)(B)). This is something we at CEI oppose, as all aircraft operators—big and small, commercial and noncommercial—should be required to pay for their use of air traffic control services.

However, the reason this provision was added was an attempt to win over the general aviation community, which along with Delta were the most vocal opponents of ATC reform. As I’ve noted before, the general aviation community—and in particular business jets—currently receives a massive air traffic control service subsidy thanks to the current structure of the aviation taxes that support the Airport and Airway Trust Fund. Bizjets pay around 0.6 percent of the aviation taxes that support the system, yet account for around 10 percent of total system use.

Mr. Halvorson is justified in opposing this carve-out, but attempting to tie it to Rep. Shuster’s relationship with an airline lobbyist makes no sense. Airlines for America does not represent any person or entity engaged in “noncommercial aircraft operations.” They represent every major commercial airline other than Delta, which resigned its membership over the trade association’s support for ATC reform. In fact, it would be the airlines and their customers cross-subsidizing this carve-out to general aviation aircraft operators were it to be baked into the ATC Corporation’s fee structure. Thus, rather than being supporters of the carve-out, airlines have a strong incentive to oppose it.