Privatizing air traffic control is unlikely

Experts: Union concerns misplaced

NATCA members, including president John Carr, demonstrated in December in front of Reagan National Airport to protest against the possible privatization of air traffic control services.

Henrik G. de Gyor

The Federal Aviation Administration is not expected to outsource air traffic control jobs to the private sector, despite a move by the agency to reclassify the jobs as commercial positions.

The air traffic controllers union is irate over the decision to put their jobs in a category reserved for positions that can be outsourced, but FAA officials said no plan exists to outsource air traffic control.

"Privatizing the air traffic control system requires congressional action; it's not something the agency or [the Office of Management and Budget] or the White House can do on its own," said William Shumann, an FAA spokesman.

He noted that last June, Secretary Norman Mineta said any large scale privatization of air traffic control would be "highly controversial in Congress," and that Mineta has "no intention of initiating that debate."

Companies that provide information technology and services to the air traffic management sector likewise do not expect privatization to occur anytime soon.

Raytheon Co., Lexington, Mass., for instance, is the main contractor on numerous FAA deals, including STARS, the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System, a $1.6 billion plan over almost 12 years to upgrade air traffic control systems at airports throughout the country.

When asked about the potential effect of privatizing air traffic control, the company dismissed the question.

"The privatization issue has no effect on Raytheon. Raytheon will continue to perform on its current contracts," said Blanche Necessary, company spokeswoman.

Other industry observers were just as confident that the union's concerns are misplaced.

One company executive, who would only speak on background, said there is an aviation trust fund that is controlled by Congress. He said legislators would be unlikely to allow the change, because they'd lose oversight of the fund.

"Our guys say this is not going to work, it's not going to happen, so there's no point even thinking about it," he said.

The controversy got started in early December, when the FAA decided to reclassify more than 15,600 air traffic controllers as commercial positions as part of the agency's Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act report. Under the FAIR Act, federal agencies are supposed to determine which agency jobs are inherently governmental and which could be performed by private industry.

FAA Administrator Marion Blakey told the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, or NATCA, in a Dec. 19 letter that air traffic control is being classified as "Commercial-Reason Code A," because it does not meet the definition of an inherently governmental activity.

"To be classified as inherently governmental, a function should involve a sovereign act on behalf of the government or an act that binds the government to a particular course of action," Blakey said in the letter. "The separation and control of air traffic does not meet this stringent definition."

But at the same time, Blakey said, Reason Code A identifies air traffic control functions as a "core capability" for the FAA to fulfill its mission of protecting the safety and security of the national air space, and therefore will not be contracted out.

Despite those reassurances, hundreds of controllers turned out Dec. 20 at more than 75 airports across the country and passed out leaflets to passengers, arguing that privatization could damage the safety of the U.S. aviation system.

"Privatization will introduce a profit motive or other financial pressures into a system whose current imperative is safety," said John Carr, NATCA's president, at a news conference held at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. "We have seen this happen in other countries that have tried privatization, and we are determined to prevent it from happening here."

Dave Schaffer, a staff member of the House Transportation subcommittee on aviation, said there are two possible reasons for the FAA to shift air traffic control from the governmental to the commercial category.

First, the agency would strengthen the legal basis for operating the Contract Tower Program, in which 219 airport control towers around the United States are staffed by employees of private companies rather than FAA employees, Schaffer said.

There may also be functions other than air traffic control that the FAA would like to contract out, and the commercial declaration would also strengthen the legal basis for the move, he said.

Those familiar with the issue said the union may be seizing on the reclassification to energize members.

"There's less to [this issue] than some would lead you to believe. Maybe it helps rally the troops -- it's good to have something to be against," Schaffer said. *

Staff Writer Patience Wait can be reached at

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