NBC News
updated 12/2/2003 2:00:48 PM ET 2003-12-02T19:00:48

The Bush Administration has made a major effort in the past 3-years to convert many public jobs to the private sector. But, the union for air traffic controllers, who work for the Federal Aviation Administration, say privatizing their jobs could be a safety hazard.

It's the biggest showdown over air traffic control since the 1981 strike, when President Ronald Reagan fired the workforce. The issue this time: privatization.

The FAA has already turned over 200 towers to private companies. Now it wants the option to one day consider converting 69 more, mostly smaller ones, controlled by radio rather than radar.

But the controllers’ union argues that private companies use fewer controllers. Jeremy Yahn worked for one. “Not having two or more people in the tower at any one time, I don’t think it’s safe. It’s just too much.”

He remembers a day when the only controller on duty accidentally locked himself out of the tower and “had to yell down to the airline crews on the ramp for probably, I think, twenty to thirty minutes, to get somebody to get a hold of security and come in through the tower and let him back in,” Yahn said.

At a privately run tower in Charlottesville, Va., this afternoon, two controllers were on duty during the busiest time. “I do believe it’s as safe as an FAA facility,” said controller Doug Gaspar.

And a study by the Department of Transportation actually finds fewer errors at privately run towers than at FAA facilities - and finds they cost half or less as much to run.

Meantime, the dispute threatens to partially shutdown the FAA by delaying the legislation that authorizes funding after next Tuesday. FAA Administrator Marion Blakey says “a lot’s on the line. A certain portion of our work force would be emergency furloughed. Sixty billion dollars is incorporated in that bill. And a lot of it goes for airport funding.”

Now, Congress may try to step in and push back the deadline as the clock ticks down, with no resolution in sight.

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