- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Legislation that would allow the Federal Aviation Administration to turn air-traffic control over to private contractors is scheduled for a vote in Congress as soon as today.

The FAA reauthorization bill has prompted threats of a filibuster by Democrats, who say it would endanger airline passengers if private companies trying to make a profit are allowed to control air traffic.

“We’re just going to make sure the public understands what’s at stake here,” said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, who stopped short of calling his plans to try to block a vote a filibuster. A filibuster refers to obstructing the passage of a bill with long speeches.

A House and Senate conference committee agreed to a compromise yesterday that would allow the bill to be put to a vote.

The main obstacle to the $60 billion FAA reauthorization was privatization of air-traffic control.

Originally, Republicans wanted to insert a provision that would allow private contractors to control air traffic at 69 additional regional airports, including the ones in Manassas and Newport News in Virginia. Private companies already employ air-traffic controllers at 219 smaller airports nationwide.

The proposal to allow privatization of 69 regional airports was eliminated by the conference committee. However, the committee left in language from an executive order by President Bush that said air-traffic control was no longer an “inherently governmental function.”

In other words, private companies still could be hired to take over air-traffic control.

Mr. Bush’s order reversed a previous executive order from President Clinton that said air-traffic control was an inherently governmental function.

“Under this administration, the thing that comes first is profit,” said Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, Oregon Democrat.

Democrats say privatization in countries like England and Canada has resulted in more near misses between aircraft.

Mr. Bush has said he would veto the four-year FAA reauthorization bill if it does not allow privatization.

“It’s about getting the job done in an affordable way,” said Sen. Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican who supports privatization.

A Sept. 4 Transportation Department inspector general’s report said privatization would save an average of $900,000 annually at each regional airport where air-traffic control is turned over to corporations.

The inspector general’s report also said safety was not likely to diminish if the FAA certifies the private controllers.

Unionized air-traffic controllers say private control towers rely on self-reports of safety problems, which might be underreported to protect the corporate owners.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association and the Professional Airways Systems Specialists say private companies would cut jobs to reduce their expenses but sacrifice safety.

Small airports with “contract towers” include five in Maryland and Virginia. There are 484 public airports nationwide.

FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said Mr. Bush had no major objections to the compromise bill submitted for a vote yesterday.

“I feel very confident the president will sign the bill,” she said.

Other provisions of the legislation would pay for new security systems at airports and provide $14 billion for new construction projects, such as runways, terminals and taxiways.

Miss Blakey described the legislation as “$60 billion to make the world’s safest system even safer.”

It also would authorize 20 more takeoff and landing slots at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. In addition, cargo pilots could be authorized to carry firearms, similar to passenger airline pilots participating in the federal flight deck officer program.

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