Senate passes amendment that would stop FAA job competition

Defying a veto threat from the White House, the Senate passed legislation Thursday that would stop the Federal Aviation Administration from holding a public-private job competition on 2,700 agency employees.

By a 56 to 41 vote, the Senate approved an amendment by Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., to the FAA reauthorization bill, S. 824, which would protect nearly all air traffic control jobs at the agency from possible outsourcing. The full bill passed by a vote of 94-0 late Thursday.

Lautenberg's provision requires that all air traffic controllers, air traffic technicians, and flight service specialists be federal employees. It would prevent the FAA from competing the jobs of 2,700 flight service specialists at 58 stations across the country, the biggest job competition in government. Flight service specialists provide weather briefings to pilots and assist with search and rescue activities, but they do not separate air traffic.

Lautenberg said his provision would protect the integrity of the air traffic control system and the safety of the flying public.

"Your luggage is important enough to be screened by trained federal workers, but once you're up in the sky, the administration seems to believe that your safety should be in the hands of the lowest bidder," he said in a statement following the vote.

Administration officials, including FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, have repeatedly said they have no plans to outsource air traffic controllers. The competition involving flight service specialists is the only such study under way at the FAA.

Earlier Thursday, the White House threatened to veto the FAA bill if the Lautenberg language was added. "Such restrictions are unnecessary and would hinder the FAA's ability to manage the air traffic control system," said a statement issued by the Office of Management and Budget. The House passed version of the FAA bill does not include Lautenberg's language-it only protects air traffic controllers from possible outsourcing-creating differences that must be resolved when the bills move to conference committee.

The White House also has threatened to veto the House version of the bill.

Wally Pike, president of the National Association of Air Traffic Specialists (NAATS), a union that represents 2,200 flight service specialists, said the Senate provision should be adopted when the bills go to conference. "This one protects our controllers and the technicians," he said. Pike expressed skepticism that President Bush would veto the FAA reauthorization bill over Lautenberg's language. "It's hard to imagine that the president would veto that bill over these provisions," he said.

If enacted, Lautenberg's measure 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. FAA officials have said it will modernize the FAA's entire flight service system, which costs more than $400 million a year to maintain.

Planning for the competition is already underway. The FAA has begun preliminary planning for the performance work statement (PWS), the list of requirements that all bidders must fulfill, according to an FAA newsletter. Grant Thornton, a Chicago-based consulting firm, is providing consultant support for the study.

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