Bill would stop FAA job competition

A public-private job competition involving 2,700 Federal Aviation Administration employees-the biggest job competition in government-would grind to a halt under legislation to be introduced by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., a spokesman said Tuesday.

The Lautenberg bill, to be offered next week, will designate nearly all FAA air traffic control jobs as "inherently governmental," a legal designation that protects them from possible outsourcing. The designation would apply to air traffic controllers, air traffic technicians, and to flight service specialists, according to Lautenberg spokesman Alex Formuzis.

While FAA Administrator Marion Blakey has said the agency has no plans to outsource air traffic controllers, the FAA intends to compete the jobs of 2,700 flight service specialists at 58 stations across the country. Sometimes called the "other controllers," flight service specialists provide weather briefings to pilots and assist with search and rescue activities, but they do not guide air traffic.

The Lautenberg bill would stop this competition, according to Formuzis and Wally Pike, president of the National Association of Air Traffic Specialists (NAATS), which represents 2,200 flight service specialists. "Lautenberg believes you can't keep one set of air traffic jobs under the control of the federal government and allow others to become privatized and farmed out to the lowest bidder," said Formuzis.

The bill would not affect 209 low-activity air traffic control towers that already have been contracted-out, according to Lautenberg staff.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown would not comment on Lautenberg's initiative.

But an official with the Office of Management and Budget criticized the senator's plan, saying it would keep the FAA from making its own determination of what jobs are not "inherently governmental," and can be contracted-out, an agency prerogative under the 1998 Federal Activities Inventory Reform (FAIR) Act.

"Agencies should be free to determine how to classify their workforce in consultation with OMB per the FAIR Act," said the official. "The taxpayers are not well served if current progress being made by government managers is arbitrarily halted."

If enacted, Lautenberg's bill would halt a job competition that OMB regards as one of the most innovative and complex in government. The competition includes every flight service station in the continental U.S.-three stations in Alaska are exempt-and is intended to modernize the FAA's entire flight service system, according to FAA officials.

"The FAA tries to look at things on a systems basis," said Deputy Chief Financial Officer John Hennigan in a recent interview. "It is similar to a major acquisition in that regard."

Because the competition is nationwide, the FAA will have to account for regional differences in the job as it creates the performance work statement, the set of requirements that in-house employees and would-be contractors must fulfill. For example, specialists in Lansing, Mich., must deal with weather from the Great Lakes. In Miami, however, much of the job involves supporting airborne assets of the Customs Service and Immigration and Naturalization Service on anti-smuggling and immigration missions, according to Kate Breen, a former specialist who is now NAATS' A-76 national representative in Washington.

"The FAA could not have picked a more complex and diverse branch of the agency for this study," she said.

But FAA officials said all specialists have the same basic duties and that the competition will reflect regional differences.

Other lawmakers are concerned the FAA may use the competition to close some flight service stations. Sens. Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., and Tim Johnson, D-S.D., both have urged Blakey to protect a flight service station in Huron, S.D., the only station in the state.

"I am concerned that closure of our last station, located in Huron, would leave pilots too isolated from vital assistance in the form of weather updates, emergency assistance, and notices to airmen," Daschle wrote in a Jan. 16 letter to Blakey.

The FAA decided to hold the competition in July, following a feasibility study by Grant Thornton, a Chicago-based consulting firm with 636 offices around the world. The agency notified Congress of the competition on Aug. 19 and will soon begin crafting the performance work statement, FAA officials said.

Lautenberg's decision to include the flight service specialists in his bill is a victory for NAATS, whose very existence is threatened by the FAA competition. "We're on the firing line," said Pike, president of the union. It also helps members of the Professional Airways Systems Specialists, a union that represents 11,000 FAA technicians who install and maintain air traffic equipment, as well as the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union of air traffic controllers.

But the bill may pose little threat to the FAA competition unless it picks up enough bi-partisan support to overcome opposition from the Bush administration, according to William Eggers, a privatization expert with Deloitte-Research and former campaign adviser to President Bush.

"As long as the administration is bird-dogging all of this legislation, it will be difficult for it to make it through Congress, and if it does it could get a [presidential] veto," he said.

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