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Shooting Down Airport Privatization Idea

August 16, 1992

As an economics professor, Mr. DeVany may or may not be qualified, but as a reputed expert on dealing with airports, he shows very little knowledge of the relationship between the Federal Aviation Administration and airport operators.

His statement that a contract operator ". . . could free itself of the FAA controller pay scale which limits the ability to retain air traffic controllers. More experienced controllers make safer airports" may be very well-intentioned but is in fact contradictory.

To begin with, there are very few "contracted" control towers in the nation, and these are at airports where the traffic density and complexity are generally below the criteria that the FAA sets for having a control tower. John Wayne Airport does not meet this test. Orange County is blessed (or cursed) with the fifth busiest airport in the country.

Secondly, although I agree that the controller pay scale limits the ability to retain more experienced controllers and that the controllers here certainly deserve a pay increase based on the volume and complexity of the traffic they work, contractors historically pay less than the FAA for similar services, and without the benefits of federal service.

Even if this were not so, where would they get these "experienced" controllers? The average level of FAA controller experience at John Wayne Tower is 8.7 years, and that does not include prior military controller experience, which many of them have. Besides that, I am not aware of an airport anywhere, regardless of volume or complexity, that has a better safety record than John Wayne.

The controllers here have been consistently applauded for their fine service by all user groups, from students to air carrier pilots, and have continually proven themselves to be among the finest air traffic controllers anywhere.

Thirdly, the example he uses of a private airport, Burbank, which is also among the busiest in the nation, has an FAA control tower.

This is the most ridiculous part of his argument. A sale of the airport would not have any impact on the control tower. The airport is currently owned by Orange County, while the control tower is owned, maintained, and operated by the FAA, a federal agency. You could sell the airport to another local agency or a private concern, but that would not change the jurisdiction of the FAA over the air traffic control tower.

If his intent is to attract and retain more experienced air traffic controllers, the only logical way to do that is to change the controller pay scale in general, and to raise the pay level of John Wayne Airport controllers specifically, so that it more accurately reflects the level of competence that is required to work here.

HOWARD RIFAS, President, National Air Traffic Controllers Assn., Local SNA (John Wayne Airport)

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