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- A handful of Republicans have concerns with the AIRR Act, a sweeping aviation bill that, if passed, would be a significant accomplishment for President Donald Trump and the GOP. The bill seeks to privatize air-traffic control. That concerns Republicans, particularly regarding congressional oversight of what would be the new private nonprofit corporation running air-traffic control.
What could become one of President Donald Trump’s signature legislative achievements is being held up by a handful of GOP lawmakers who are hung up mostly over one item in the bill.
The legislation is the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act, a broad aviation bill that would, among other changes, privatize the nation’s air-traffic-control system. The AIRR Act is being pushed by Republican Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, the chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and has the backing of the White House and House leadership. It would be the largest aviation-related overhaul in roughly four decades, something Trump could claim as a major policy victory.
But the proposal is controversial. It would hand over the air-traffic-control system to a newly formed nonprofit organization, which would be governed by a board that included people nominated by the transportation secretary, airline companies, and representatives of aviation unions, such as those representing pilots and air-traffic controllers. Some Republicans are worried about the effects that nonprofit would have on smaller, private aircraft, specifically the costs that could be implemented on people who fly privately to use privatized air-traffic control.
The bill, which has a trio of Democratic cosponsors, is facing opposition from Republican Reps. Bill Flores of Texas, Lynn Jenkins of Kansas, and Todd Rokita of Indiana.
The bill passed committee in June but has not yet been brought forth for a vote, though a previously scheduled vote was delayed as Republicans try to negotiate a compromise on congressional oversight over the newly formed nonprofit. But unlike last year, when a similar effort stalled out because it did not have enough votes, the legislation now has the full backing of the executive branch.
Those who oppose the legislation zeroed in on three aspects, Flores told Business Insider.
Two of the three main concerns – which were related to coordination with US national-security operations and access to the new, private air-traffic-control system for general aviation (meaning nonmilitary, governmental, or commercial aircraft) – have mostly been resolved. It’s the third issue – congressional oversight of the board of the newly formed nonprofit and of the nonprofit’s pricing to use its services – that has caused a hangup.
Flores, a pilot, said lawmakers who remain opposed to the legislation as a result are still working with the Trump administration and Shuster to “try and resolve” that hangup.
“We haven’t found where the middle is yet,” Flores said. “I’ve offered a couple of suggestions to Chairman Shuster and the T&I Committee that I think are user friendly so that the private entity that runs it and the private capital that finances it would have some certainty that they wouldn’t be held up by Congress, but we’re not quite there yet.”
In explaining his idea for how to handle congressional oversight over the nonprofit’s pricing, Flores said a mechanism separate from the Congressional Review Act would allow Congress to have a limited time to veto prices set forth by the nonprofit. If Congress did not act within that time, the pricing provided by the nonprofit would go into effect.
“That should be user-friendly, and it doesn’t leave” the nonprofit and its capital providers “in limbo for an extended period of time,” Flores said.
But as a Republican aide on the Transportation Committee insisted to Business Insider, the issues that Republicans who are opposed to the current legislation “call out don’t exist in the black letter text of the bill and they’ve all been worked out.”
“That’s been the most frustrating thing,” they said.
The aide said that the bill “explicitly states” that they “may not” pay a user fee for general aviation access to the new service. The major airliners would be paying that fee.
While Flores and others are concerned about congressional oversight over the nonprofit’s board, the aide described its makeup and added it would not be “a giveaway to the big airlines.”
“It’s a 13-seat board, and at maximum commercial aviation have three seats out of 13,” they said. “So it’s a mathematical impossibility. Even if they voted in a block, they still don’t have the numbers to do it.”
Additionally, they said board members could not be a CEO of a major airliner.
“They can’t serve two masters,” they said. “If they’re a board member, they’re a board member.”
In addition to the privatization effort, the bill provides a long-term Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization and provides consumer changes such as preventing customers from being booted from a commercial flights once they receive a boarding pass, something that caught major attention after a passenger was dragged off a United flight earlier this year.
Rokita, the Republican lawmaker who is most outspoken against the legislation, was the only Republican to vote against the bill when it went through the Transportation Committee. The Indiana lawmaker is a fierce opponent of privatization, believing that it would cause the major airliners to dominate the field. The issue also hits close to home for Rokita, a licensed pilot who flies a small plane frequently.
His flying was the subject of a controversy in what is now a brutal Senate primary race that he’s running against Republican Rep. Luke Messer. As Politico reported in May, Rokita used roughly $100,000 in campaign cash to reimburse the company he co-owns for using that private plane. Though there was no evidence he broke any ethics rules or laws, Politico wrote that “campaign finance advocates have long questioned the use of campaign funds to reimburse companies owned by members.”
“Messer is attacking me for using my small prop plane to travel Indiana meeting Hoosiers – the same plane I use doing charity work for wounded veterans and sick children,” Rokita wrote in a fundraising email. “However, as the reporter notes, I have done nothing unethical and followed all relevant laws.”
A representative for Jenkins did not return a request for comment. In her statement following the Trump administration’s budget proposal in March, which called for air-traffic-control privatization, Jenkins said it would “adversely” affect general aviation and her home state of Kansas, where three of the top five largest employers are in the aviation industry.
“The proposal to privatize air traffic control has dangerous long-term implications on general aviation and the small airports and rural communities it serves,” Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas said in a February statement, highlighting the difficulties the legislation could face in the Senate even if it makes it through the House. “General aviation would forever be under the threat of higher, unfair fees and costs, with no opportunity for American citizens to affect change through their elected officials.”
The Republican resistance to the legislation has angered some of the grassroots. Noah Wall, vice president of advocacy for the conservative group FreedomWorks, told Business Insider that he’s “very disappointed to see Republicans, especially from Trump districts, opposing really commonsense stuff.
“I understand that, yeah, this is slightly disruptive to private-jet owners,” he added. “But our opinion and the opinion of our activists is that this is a no-brainer. It increases safety, it decreases wait times for customers on airplanes and wait time on the ground and all that so we think that’s very important.”
FreedomWorks has “engaged” its activists on this issue, Wall added, pointing to Rokita, Jenkins, and Flores as “the three major holdups.”
“We plan to continue,” he said. “This is, from our point of view, this year, any wins that we can get I think are very important, heading into the midterms.”
Wall said that the current system essentially provides private-jet owners with a large subsidy to use the system, compared to the commercial airliners.
“Frankly, I don’t know how many FreedomWorks activists have a whole lot of love for private-jet subsidies,” Wall said. “I don’t know how many Americans do either.”
The bill is waiting for its day on the House floor. A representative for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy did not return a request for comment about when leadership was seeking to have one take place. As the Republican transportation aide said, the environment for the bill “has been kind of taken away” by “the issues of the day,” which have included healthcare and emergency funding following the recent Atlantic hurricanes.
“I mean we’d love to get this done,” they said. “But every day that we have is another day to talk to members and educate them and get them on board.”
For Flores, he simply wants to get the bill “to where it’s good policy.”
Though he said he has only “conjecture at this point” for whether the bill would see a floor date soon, he said the fact that it has yet to come to a vote was telling.
“Given the fact that they’ve been signaling that it’s going to come to the floor [and] it hasn’t, it appears that they are still struggling to find the votes,” he said. “So what we’re trying to do is be proactive to get it right so that we don’t create another Amtrak.”