Tom Cole shoots down back door attempt at more FAA privatization

That massive FAA authorization bill has been mostly wrapped up in the House (as Taylor recently noted) and now the Senate will need to knock together their own version so it can head to reconciliation. As predicted, the big “privatization” plan which retiring Congressman Bill Shuster had been pushing for was not included. It was a plan which was pretty much dead back in February, but one story from the final negotiations shows that supporters of the scheme weren’t going to go down without a fight.

The final markup included a number of amendments which required a vote, including one which would have created an “Aerospace Management Advisory Council.” While not having the same complete control of Air Traffic Control (ATC) functions which would have been in place under the previous scheme, this “council” would have looked suspiciously similar and would be made up of the same cast of characters we saw before. Their duties were to include the ability to:

  • Recommend to the Secretary candidates to serve as the Chief Operating Officer;
  • Provide advice to the Secretary and the Chief Operating Officer on issues that affect or are affected by the operation of the air traffic control system and the provision of air navigation services;
  • Function as the primary advisory resource for management, policy, spending, and regulatory matters under the jurisdiction of the Chief Operating Officer; and
  • Review and issue recommendations on the rulemaking and procurement benefit-cost analysis process, any rulemaking or procurement benefit-cost analysis associated with air traffic control.

What’s more, the members of this council were to be made up of one person picked by the Secretary of Transportation, one chosen by the Secretary of Defense, one from the “national officers of the exclusive bargaining representative” (that’s the unions), and ten to “represent the interests of the aviation industry.” In other words, ten of the thirteen would be from the airlines. Sound familiar?

That didn’t wind up happening, though. At the last minute, opposition rose once again, this time seemingly led by Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma. The plan was rejected despite Shuster’s insistence that he wasn’t trying to sneak some privatization in at the last minute. (USA Today)

But Shuster was still tinkering with last-minute changes to the bill at 5 p.m. Tuesday. One change called for FAA’s chief operating officer report directly to the secretary of transportation rather than the FAA administrator, which caused concern among other lawmakers.

“This is not a privatization bill,” Shuster said. “I’m not trying to do anything back door, sneaking around.”

As the Rules Committee debated what rules would govern floor debate scheduled for Wednesday, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said not seeing the changes “causes me some concern.”

“If it’s as substantive as I’ve been informed, I would be disturbed by that,” Cole said.

So the privatization plan appears to be dead, but the bill does include some other changes worth keeping an eye on. Some are probably good news for consumers, others not so much. On the positive front, the bill would ban voice calls during flights (including Skype and other wifi calls), bar airlines from bumping passengers who had boarded a full flight, order the installation of secondary barriers to the cockpit on all new aircraft and require the FAA to report within one year on whether or not the shrinking space between airline seats is impacting the ability to efficiently evacuate planes in the event of an emergency. On the negative side, the bill would repeal the rule requiring airlines to include the cost of taxes and fees when advertising their prices. How that one snuck through is a mystery.

Still, assuming the Senate doesn’t go completely off the rails on their version, the FAA bill may finally be close to the finish line. If passed, it will be good for five years so we won’t have to go through all this again for a while.