June 21, 2017 / 5:17 PM / 2 months ago

Republicans propose bill to privatize U.S. air traffic control

WASHINGTON, June 21 (Reuters) - The chairman of the U.S. House Transportation Committee on Wednesday proposed legislation to privatize the U.S. air traffic control system and make other aviation reforms, but it faces an uncertain future in Congress.

The panel plans to consider the bill on Tuesday and the full House will vote in mid-July, said Representative Bill Shuster, a Republican who chairs the committee.

"This is about saving the taxpayers' money," Shuster told reporters Wednesday. "Maintaining the status quo is unacceptable."

In the wake of the forced removal of a United Airlines passenger in April from his seat, the airline banned the practice. Shuster's bill would make it illegal for an airline to bump an already boarded passenger from a flight.

It would also require the U.S. Transportation Department to clarify passenger compensation regulations and would bar the use of cell phones and mobile devices for phone calls during flights.

The bill also requires large and medium-sized airports to provide clean private rooms in all terminals for nursing mothers, and airlines would have to post a prominent link on their website on services offered in the event of a widespread computer outage. Many airlines have been hit by computer system outages over the last year.

The most controversial proposal is to privatize air traffic control.

Earlier this month, Trump unveiled a plan to modernize air traffic control and lower flying costs. Under the proposal, air traffic control would be spun off from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and put under the oversight of a nonprofit corporation.

Shuster said airlines would have three seats on the 13-member board - one for major airlines, one for cargo carriers and one for regional airlines. The Trump administration has proposed giving airlines two seats on the board, while Shuster last year proposed giving airlines four seats.

Shuster aims to address concerns from private plane owners and rural airports by barring the new entity from charging general aviation operators user fees.

The chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, John Thune, said Tuesday that he was not planning to include air traffic control privatization in the FAA reauthorization, a committee aide said.

Shuster's bill would reauthorize the FAA for six years and also has provisions to speed up a decision by the Transportation Department on whether to allow expanded commercial drone use.

Critics say the plan would hand control of a key asset to special interests and big airlines.

The administration and Shuster say they would not charge the private entity for the government's air traffic control assets and would bar Congress from reviewing fees charged by the board.

Executives from United, Hawaiian Airlines Inc, American Airlines Inc and Southwest Airlines Co, strongly back the proposal.

The FAA spends nearly $10 billion a year on air traffic control funded largely through passenger user fees, and has spent more than $7.5 billion on next-generation air traffic control reforms in recent years.

It is unclear whether privatization would speed the rollout of new systems such as satellite-based aircraft tracking that replaces ground radar dating back to World War Two. (Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

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