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Commentary | VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES

Private Sector Shouldn't Direct Airplane Traffic

August 30, 2003|John C. Goodin | John C. Goodin is the president of the Van Nuys local of the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn.

The White House has put aviation safety on the chopping block. It convinced Republican members of a House-Senate conference committee to contract out the operation of 69 air traffic control towers to the lowest bidder. And the tower at Van Nuys Airport -- the busiest general aviation airport in the world -- is on the list.

This decision was a direct repudiation of bipartisan votes in the House and Senate for legislation that would permanently prohibit privatization of air traffic control. It comes in the face of strong opposition by the American public and it defies common sense.

Just last year, Congress and the administration mandated that all baggage screeners must be federal employees. After the catastrophic failure of private contractors on 9/11, it was determined that checking passengers' bags as they board aircraft was too important to be left to the private sector. Now, we may decide that the infinitely more complex and critical job of air traffic control can be contracted out to companies more concerned with cutting corners than protecting the safety of our skies.

The United States has the safest, most efficient air traffic control system in the world. Air traffic controllers guide more than 1 million passengers home safely every day. Just consider the dismal record of air traffic control privatization in other countries.

Britain's air traffic control system has been in a state of crisis since privatization. Near misses have increased by 50% and delays due to air traffic control are growing enormously. Privatization has been a financial disaster, losing money in each of the last two years and requiring a bailout in March of more than $200 million from the government and the airline industry.

EuroControl, the air traffic control organization for all of Europe, issued a report recently that found the American air traffic control system is 74% more efficient and 79% more productive than the European system. The obvious implication of these findings is that the European system needs to be more like ours.

Canada's privatized system, Nav Canada, suffers from inefficiencies, inadequate staffing and financial losses. Just last month, the fees that airlines, and ultimately passengers, are required to pay for air traffic control went up 7% to cover bad debt of $22 million. Should that be the model for the American air traffic control system?

The tower at Van Nuys Airport is staffed by highly trained professionals employed by the Federal Aviation Administration. Their priority -- first, last and always -- is safety. There's no private contractor trying to pinch pennies. These controllers are answerable to the public, not to investors and not to accountants. That could change if the bill crafted by a few members of Congress is passed in September when it's scheduled for a vote.

Of course, one of these congressmen knows very well the value of having federal air traffic controllers staffing his towers. In an extraordinarily cynical move, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the chairman of the committee that adopted this provision, protected his own towers in Alaska from privatization, while abandoning those like Van Nuys throughout the rest of the country. Why should it be safe to fly in Alaska but not in the San Fernando Valley?

Congress should stick to its first instinct and reject the White House's misguided effort to jeopardize the safety of our skies. Now more than ever, the American public expects the federal government to protect our safety, not put it up for sale.

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