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New Flight Path for Canadian Controllers

Aviation: Optimism is mostly high as privatization looms, with expectations for lower ticket prices, improved performance and continued safety.

May 02, 1996|CRAIG TURNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TORONTO — For those who guide the thousands of aircraft in, around and out of Canada's busiest airspace, "rush hour" means airliners stacked one behind the other at three- to five-mile intervals, lining up to land at Lester B. Pearson Airport.

There have been no fatalities here since 1977, and Pearson has a good record for on-time arrivals. As with any international airport, the stakes in a flawless performance by air traffic controllers are high: Delays can ripple out like a stone in a pool, confounding travel schedules in dozens of countries.

Similarly, a fundamental change at the center of Canada's air traffic control operation this summer will reverberate through this country's air transport system and beyond: As early as July 1, the Canadian government will quit the air traffic control business and sell its control towers, training facilities and contracts with 6,400 federal employees to a nonprofit corporation.

The new outfit, controlled by airlines and other airport service users, will take over air navigation responsibility for this sprawling country, the second-largest land mass in the world. If all goes as planned, the result will be diminished costs and improved performance for the airlines, lower ticket prices for passengers and no compromise in safety.

The optimism among nearly everyone associated with flying and the travel industry is based in part on the experience of such countries as Germany, Switzerland and Australia, which have taken similar, though more modest, steps.

Proposals have also been made to partially privatize air traffic control in the United States. They are stalled in Congress.

Canada's switch comes as the development of satellite-based air traffic guidance promises to significantly improve air travel by limiting delays, cutting fuel costs and shortening flying time, said Dave Lewis, president of the controllers union in Canada and a backer of privatization.

The technical gap between aircraft guidance systems and equipment on the ground is "widening every day," Lewis says, and privatization offers a chance to change that. Controllers are also optimistic that the new approach will mean a pay raise and a chance to fill gaps in the ranks.

Privatization of air traffic control is but one element in a dramatic transformation of public transport that began here with the 1988 sale of government-owned Air Canada to private investors. It has accelerated since 1994 under Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

The government has sold the national railroad, cut support for ferry services, eliminated rail subsidies to grain farmers and is transferring ownership of harbors and airports to local agencies. It is also selling Canada's interest in the St. Lawrence Seaway, which it operates with the United States.

"We simply don't need to be the employer of the guy holding the flashlight at the airport," explains Transport Minister David Anderson. "The pressure is there on the financial side . . . [and] we're trying to get a little commercial discipline in an area that always has been political."

Anderson, who took over the ministry in January, and his predecessor, Doug Young, have presided over the steady shrinking of their empire. A department that once employed 19,000 will end up with 4,000 to 5,000. The focus has shifted from operating airports, trains, ships and harbors to setting standards and regulation.

With air navigation, for example, the federal government will continue to set and enforce safety rules. But operational control will pass to Nav Canada, the new nonprofit corporation.

Nav Canada will pay the government $1.1 billion for the system, which includes seven regional control centers, 44 airport towers and a state-of-the art training school.

One way the government has muted potential critics is by giving almost everyone involved a stake. Of Nav Canada's 15-member governing board, four seats are allocated to the airline industry, three to the federal government, two to employee unions and one to general aviation. Those 10 board members in turn select the remaining five.

Over a two-year transition, the board will levy fees to replace government funding. At that point, Canada's air transportation tax, which adds as much as $40 to the price of a ticket, will be eliminated. Airlines are expected to assume most of the system's cost, meaning they may pass their fees on to consumers as higher fares. It may be, however, that a more efficient control system and increasing competition among carriers will hold down ticket prices.

Kenneth Copeland, 54, Nav Canada's new president and chief executive, defines his job succinctly: "a higher level of service, but also a more cost-effective system."

One widely expected change is a streamlining of procurement practices by dumping politically inspired "made in Canada" requirements, which could result in the purchase of more U.S.-built equipment. Staff reductions, probably in positions other than front-line controller spots, are also expected.

That causes discomfort in places such as Oshawa, a suburb 40 miles east of Toronto. There the future of a small airfield dating from World War II is in question. Two flying clubs and a charter company that occasionally brings in parts to the nearby General Motors assembly plant account for most of the traffic in Oshawa.

Can Oshawa, where nine controllers are employed, survive market forces that will soon intrude on air traffic decisions?

"I have difficulty understanding what's going to happen to me," concedes one controller. "I'm happy to be doing this job. It's a great job and I love it, but I'm still in the dark."

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