- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Senate Democrats yesterday proposed an alternative to a Bush administration plan to privatize air-traffic control at an additional 69 regional airports.

They want to keep Federal Aviation Administration air-traffic controllers on the government payroll instead of turning their jobs over to private companies.

Included on the list of control towers that would be privatized are airports in Manassas and Newport News in Virginia.

“You do not fool with the air-transportation system,” said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat.

The bill he introduced yesterday would extend the FAA’s funding for air-traffic controllers by six months until Congress can work out new legislation that would stop the further privatization of airport towers. A vote in Congress is expected within days.

President Bush has said he would veto a four-year, $60 billion fiscal 2004 FAA funding proposal if it does not allow privatization. Fiscal 2004 begins Oct. 1.

A Sept. 4 Transportation Department inspector general’s report says 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 decline with proper FAA certification and oversight.

Of the nation’s 484 public airports, 219 have “contract towers,” including five in Maryland and Virginia.

Unionized air-traffic controllers say companies would cut jobs to save money but compromise safety.

“It’s really about safety,” said Marilyn Martin, an air-traffic controller at Manassas Regional Airport.

The airport uses 11 air-traffic controllers who handle about 500 flights per day among small private airplanes, medevac helicopters, military turboprops and corporate jets.

“If it’s privatized, it could go as low as seven, if not lower than that,” Mrs. Martin said about the control tower’s staffing level.

Newport News-Williamsburg International Airport handles a mix of aircraft similar to Manassas Regional Airport.

Private air-traffic control in the United States is dominated by three companies: Serco Group, Midwest Air Traffic Control Service and Robinson-Van Vuren Associates.

“The 20-plus year history of the FAA contract-tower program by all measures points to an extremely safe and efficient air-traffic-control program,” said Spencer Dickerson, spokesman for the American Association of Airport Executives, an airport trade group that includes private air-traffic-control companies.

The dispute began in 1981, when President Reagan fired more than 11,000 controllers, saying they violated a national security provision in their contract by striking. The FAA contracted many of their jobs at small airports to private companies.

Unionized air-traffic controllers say the inspector general incorrectly found no increased safety problems at privatized airport towers.

Private control towers rely on self-reports of safety problems, which might be underreported to protect the corporate owners, the union says.

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