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Air controllers, FAA spar at hearing

/ Source: The Associated Press

Federal Aviation Administration Director Marion Blakey disputed critics who say the agency’s plan to staff dozens more small control towers with privately employed workers will undermine safety.

In prepared testimony Wednesday before the House aviation subcommittee, Blakey said the FAA retains oversight of “contract towers” and that 99 percent of private controllers are former FAA or military personnel.

“These towers are safe,” she said, adding they also are much cheaper to operate.

Air traffic controllers were prepared to testify that private towers save money through understaffing and are not as closely monitored by the FAA.

Jeremy Yahn, formerly a controller in a private tower in Missoula, Mont., said training for privately employed controllers is insufficient and safety violations aren’t reported to the FAA.

The FAA in 1982 began contracting for air traffic control at about 60 small airports. Now 219 of the 484 public airports in the United States with towers have contract air controllers.

An FAA analysis in May found that it costs an average of $1.34 million annually to run an FAA-staffed tower, while the average cost for a similar contract tower is $421,000 per year.

The dispute over privatization has stalled a $60 billion aviation spending bill. Funding for the air traffic control system and other aviation projects is set to expire next Tuesday.

The measure includes a provision allowing 69 more control towers to be privatized. The White House on Tuesday offered to drop that section, according to a Transportation Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity. But language prohibiting privatization of any more air traffic control positions for four years also would be deleted, the official said.

Two Democratic leaders on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Peter DeFazio of Oregon and James Oberstar of Minnesota, sent a letter to their colleagues urging them to vote against the proposed compromise.

The change would “give the FAA the green light to privatize all or part of the air traffic control system,” the letter said. “This defies the will of both the House and the Senate.”

The union representing 15,600 controllers says it’s concerned the administration’s ultimate goal is to privatize all controllers. It sued the government in the mid-1990s, claiming the conversion of government-run control towers is illegal. The case is in federal court in Ohio.

The controllers say their jobs were protected from privatization in 2000 when President Clinton signed an executive order calling air traffic service “an inherently governmental function.” Last year, President Bush amended that order by reclassifying the jobs as “commercial, but exempt from competition.”

Because of that change, Congress voted to forbid air traffic control privatization. But when the House and Senate reconciled their two versions of the aviation spending bill, administration officials lobbied successfully to add the two sections that it now is willing to drop.