FAA says air traffic control not ‘inherently governmental’

The Transportation Department has decided its air traffic control operations are no longer inherently governmental work, a move that could lead to eventual outsourcing of such operations.

"The [Transportation Department] has declared air traffic controllers as Category A commercial," said Federal Aviation Administration spokesman William Shumann. "Those in Category A are not subject to competitive outsourcing, and are considered a core function critical to the mission of the FAA," he said. Though Category A jobs are not subject to competition, they could be shifted into another category that would allow the administration to compete them.

The change builds on the Bush administration's move last summer to strike the term "inherently governmental" from a Clinton-era executive order about air traffic control operations. Inherently governmental jobs cannot be outsourced. Under guidance issued in November by the Office of Management and Budget, agencies must "presume all activities are commercial in nature unless an activity is justified as inherently governmental." The guidance directs agencies to justify any decision to designate a particular activity as inherently governmental.

The guidance also includes six levels of commercial ranking, but Category A jobs are not eligible for outsourcing. Jobs assigned to Category B can be competitively outsourced. A spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said the new designation could simply be a stepping stone on the way to a Category B designation for controllers' jobs. The association represents 15,600 air traffic controllers.

"We are always assumed to be inherently governmental," association spokesman Doug Church said. "This just puts us right on the brink of privatization because the next step down is Category B, which says that [air traffic control operations] will be subject to competition."

The new air traffic control designation is expected to be made public when OMB releases its third inventory of commercial jobs for fiscal 2002. The 1998 Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act (FAIR) requires the government to publish lists showing commercial jobs that are eligible for outsourcing. Church said it's hard to believe that air traffic control operations would not be considered an activity that should remain inherently governmental.

"We are extremely important to the safety and security of the American traveling public," Church said. "If we're not inherently governmental, who is?"

The threat of being shifted to the next category is a real one, said Heather Awsumb, spokeswoman for the Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS) union. Awsumb said that early reports show that about 700 PASS jobs will be designated as Category B commercial when the next round of FAIR Act lists are published at the end of the year, up from 288 Category B commercial jobs last year.

"We would definitely agree with NATCA and the controllers that being Category A commercial is a slippery slope," Awsumb said. "The interesting thing, we think, is that the agency made the very conscious decision to list the controllers as a Category A commercial activity rather than inherently governmental. Inherently governmental jobs would never be subjected to contracting out, but Category A jobs could because they can eventually become Category B without any explanation."

According to FAA's Shumann, NATCA can appeal the designation, and the potential for air traffic control operations to be privatized is "highly remote" because it would require congressional action.

Following the amendment of the executive order in June, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said that large-scale privatization of air traffic control operations would be "highly controversial in Congress."

"I have no intention of initiating this debate," Mineta said.

NATCA members plan to pass out fliers at 75 airports, including Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport, on Friday in an effort to make the public aware of FAA's actions.

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