Out of Control Policy Blog

Duplicity Confronted in ATC Privatization Battle

Bob Poole gives us the dirt on the fight over privatization in Congress. . .

The seemingly endless debate over the outsourcing provisions of the FAA reauthorization bill continued in September, as Congress passed a one-month extension to keep the agency in operation. Fortunately, we finally are seeing key aviation players taking controllers' union NATCA and its allies to task for deliberate distortion of the facts.

The union's continued raising of the safety red-herring -- in the face of a new Inspector General's report that showed a significantly lower rate of operational errors at contract towers than at comparable FAA-run towers -- provoked FAA Administrator Marion Blakey to rebuke the union's radio and TV ad campaign. "[M]illions of dollars have been spent to misrepresent" the contract tower program, she told Aviation Subcommittee members. NATCA's allegations "are wrong and could have the effect of undermining public confidence in the safety" of the aviation system.

Both leading general aviation organizations, AOPA and NBAA, are supporting the legislation including its contract tower provisions. AOPA has strongly criticized NATCA for "misrepresenting" its position on the bill. And NBAA for the first time has endorsed the contract tower program, calling it "an excellent example of how certain federal services that would otherwise face extinction can continue through private industry." AOPA president Phil Boyer has also reiterated the organization's support for the current FAA study of possible outsourcing of the costly and inefficient Flight Service Station program.

Nav Canada, whose record as a successful nonprofit ATC corporation has been grossly distorted by NATCA, sent a detailed three-page letter to House and Senate transportation leadership September 9th, correcting the record. CEO John Crichton pointed out, for example, that if operational irregularities were defined the same way in both countries, the rate per 100,000 aircraft movements would be higher in the United States than in Canada (the opposite of what NATCA has been saying). He refuted the union's claim that Nav Canada is only 75% staffed, when the actual figure is close to 100%. And he refuted the repeated lie that passengers in Canada now pay a $24/passenger ATC fee. That fee is a security fee, and the actual ATC charge to airlines, when averaged over the passengers carried, is between 30 cents and $1.40 per passenger.

But for sheer chutzpah, it's hard to beat Sens. Lautenberg and Rockefeller. Purporting to offer a "non-controversial" six-month extension to keep FAA operating, Rockefeller put forth a bill that would, by the way, prohibit any expansion of contract towers and remove the 2007 sunset provision from the Conference Report. Those are the very issues about which this controversy rages! Then there is Sen. Lautenberg, whose position appears to be determined solely by which party is in power. Back in 1993, he declared on the Senate floor, "I strongly endorse the FAA's contract tower program for level 1 towers," going on to laud the estimated annual savings of $200,000 per tower (now running at $917,000 per tower 10 years later, according to the new IG report). And in 1994, when the Clinton-Gore plan to shift ATC from FAA to a user-funded corporation called USATS was being introduced -- a move far more radical than simply adding a few dozen more contract towers -- Lautenberg told the Washington Post, "The administration's proposal to privatize the air traffic control system is consistent with the desire to bring more efficiency and reform to government and should be reviewed seriously."

Adrian Moore is Vice President, Policy


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