US Rep. Bill Shuster’s (R-Pennsylvania) proposed legislation to separate air traffic control (ATC) management from FAA has cleared a key committee vote, but a “flags of convenience” amendment added to the bill will likely make it more controversial.

The House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed Shuster’s FAA reauthorization legislation by a 32-25 vote, clearing the way for the bill that would reauthorize FAA for six years and create an independent, non-profit entity to run US ATC to be voted on by the full House, which Shuster, the committee’s chairman, said he believes will happen “before August.”

In the 10-hour June 27 “markup” of the bill, the legislation was amended to include the language of the proposed “Flags of Convenience Don’t Fly Here Act,” which aims to make it more difficult for the US transportation secretary to grant foreign air carrier permits to European carriers such as Norwegian Air International (NAI). After a three-year process, NAI was finally granted approval late last year to begin flights between Ireland and the US.

But the amendment introduced during the markup by House aviation subcommittee chairman Frank LoBiondo (R-New Jersey) directs the US Department of Transportation (DOT) to ensure airlines applying for foreign carrier permits under the US-EU Open Skies agreement “do not undermine labor standards or the labor-related rights and principles” contained in the agreement. DOT may impose specific labor conditions on the carrier being granted a permit, according to the amendment.

The amendment passed via a voice vote, meaning none of the committee members opposed it, and has the full backing of Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), the ranking Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. DeFazio nevertheless opposed the full Shuster bill, voicing opposition to spinning off ATC from FAA.

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) union praised the inclusion of the “flags of convenience” amendment in Shuster’s FAA reauthorization bill. “The LoBiondo amendment … clarifies existing law by identifying the flag-of-convenience business model as a potentially disqualifying condition for an airline seeking a US foreign air carrier permit,” ALPA said in a statement. “The measure defends US aviation workers against foreign carriers’ shopping the globe for cheap labor while upholding the letter and spirit of our Open Skies agreement with the European Union.”

The US Travel Association said lawmakers were losing focus on the goal of ATC reform by including a provision making “it easier to block pro-growth, pro-traveler disruption from low-cost airlines,” adding, “Currently, very few of these carriers serve the US, and this amendment limits the ability of any new competitors to establish direct international flights here. This amendment directly undermines our country’s Open Skies agreements, and risks millions of American jobs by hampering efforts to make our aviation market more competitive and give flyers more choices.”

Shuster now will seek to overcome legislative obstacles to the passage of his ATC reform plan by the full Congress prior to FAA’s authorization expiring on Sept. 30, 2017. Shuster was also able to convince the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to pass a similar bill last year, but House leadership declined to bring the legislation to the floor for a vote. Shuster has said he has more support in the House for this year’s version of the bill, noting that Rep. Sam Graves (R-Missouri), a strong advocate for the general aviation community, is backing this year’s bill after opposing last year’s version.   

The legislation “continues to gain momentum,” Shuster said. US President Donald Trump has signaled his support for removing ATC from FAA.

But Shuster continues to meet bipartisan resistance in the Senate, where the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is expected to pass a version of FAA reauthorization legislation—championed by committee chairman John Thune (R-South Dakota)—that keeps FAA intact and does not create an independent ATC entity. With most House Democrats and both Senate Republicans and Democrats opposing Shuster’s ATC plan, gathering the number of votes necessary to pass an FAA reauthorization bill including ATC reform by Sept. 30 appears to be a daunting task.

Aaron Karp