FAA compromise allows job competition to go ahead

In a victory for President Bush's drive to open federal jobs to private sector competition, lawmakers have dropped language from the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill that would have protected air traffic employees from possible outsourcing.

During a House-Senate conference committee meeting last Thursday, lawmakers agreed to scrap provisions in the versions of the bill passed by each chamber that would have prevented the FAA from outsourcing air traffic controllers. They also scuttled a Senate-passed provision that 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.

In place of these provisions, conferees adopted language that would bar outsourcing of air traffic controllers until fiscal 2008. And they exempted 71 low- and medium-activity towers from this ban, giving the FAA leeway to outsource jobs at these towers. The FAA has already privatized jobs at 218 low-activity towers. Republican leaders and the White House crafted the new language, according to several sources.

Democrats assailed the new language and promised to fight the FAA conference report on the floor of the House and the Senate. "They removed a lot of the provisions that were in both the Senate and House bills that would have protected FAA workers from being privatized," said Alex Formuzis, spokesman for Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who wrote the Senate provision that would have prevented outsourcing. "Senator Lautenberg is going to work hard to correct what happened behind the closed doors of the conference committee."

Congressional Democrats are considering a variety of parliamentary tactics to stop the bill. Lautenberg is weighing a filibuster of the conference report, according to Formuzis.

The compromise clears the way for the FAA to continue its public-private competition involving the flight service system, which costs more than $400 million a year to maintain. The agency has begun crafting the list of requirements that potential bidders must fulfill.

Wally Pike, president of the National Association of Air Traffic Specialists, which represents 2,200 air traffic specialists, criticized the conferees' decision. "We're very disappointed in that compromise," he said. "We don't think it is very well thought out and we hope it will be reconsidered."

The compromise also exposes FAA air traffic technicians, represented by the Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS) union, to possible job competitions. The Senate-passed bill had protected these employees from competitive sourcing.

Supporters of competitive sourcing were pleased with the new language. "It was definitely not the big setback we had been fearing," said Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at the Reason Foundation, a Los-Angeles based think tank. "There's no bar on expanding the contract tower program, and the language will not interfere with the A-76 competition on flight service stations, which is the other thing that Lautenberg tried to torpedo," he said.

A spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget declined to comment on the conferees' action. The National Association of Air Traffic Controllers had not issued a statement as of Monday evening.

The conference report could make it to the Senate floor this week. The House, which has adjourned for its August recess, will not consider it until September.

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