Administration to consider privatizing air traffic control

The Bush administration is likely to consider privatizing the nation's air traffic control system, but observers say the proposal won't be an easy sell. In last week's budget blueprint, President Bush pledged to create a plan for reforming the nation's air traffic system, drawing on the experience of countries that have privatized their systems. A February report from the Reason Public Policy Institute is likely to be "a starting point" for the administration's plan, said Robert Poole Jr., the report's lead author. The report, "How to Commercialize Air Traffic Control," looks at privatized air traffic systems around the world and incorporates some features of the Canadian system into its proposal. "I would expect that a proposal such as ours would be a significant part of what [the administration] look[s] at," said Poole, director of the Reason Institute's transportation program. The report proposes that a nonprofit corporation handle air traffic control. Its board members would include representatives of the airlines, airports, general aviation users, and the federal government. The Federal Aviation Administration would still maintain primary oversight of safety, but the nonprofit corporation would run the system's day-to-day operations. And in a move the report says is essential to creating an entrepreneurial culture at the corporation, Congress would lose direct oversight of air traffic control. A new management team would head the proposed corporation, and officials would retain current controllers and technicians in the short term by guaranteeing no layoffs. Later, the corporation would offer lateral transfers to employees who wish to rejoin the government as well as early retirement buyouts. But unions representing air traffic controllers and technicians have blasted Poole's report. "All privatization would do is balance the bottom line of a so-called self-supporting corporation against my bottom line--safety," said John Carr, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Mike Fanfalone, president of the Professional Airways System Specialists, a technicians' union, said recent changes to the nation's air traffic system, including President Clinton's decision to make the air traffic unit a performance-based organization last December, should be allowed to blossom before new reforms are considered. In a performance-based organization, government executives are given broad exemptions from federal procurement and personnel rules in exchange for tough performance standards. "We need to give the seeds that have been planted a chance to take root," said Fanfalone. Poole admitted the new performance-based organization, called the Air Traffic Organization, has had little time to improve management of air traffic systems. Still, several former FAA officials believe privatization is the only answer to air traffic control woes, he said. "Very credible people have said it is highly unlikely that the Air Traffic Organization would make a difference," Poole said, citing former FAA administrators Langhorne Bond of the Carter administration and David Hinson of the Clinton administration as examples. As an advisor to the Bush campaign on transportation policy, Poole was the primary architect of Bush's aviation policy. He also served on the administration's transition team for transportation issues, and said that fixing air traffic control was the top issue for the board's working group on aviation issues. Despite the apparent similarity in views between Poole and the Bush administration, the various groups that oppose privatization will make it a tough sell to Congress, according to an aviation expert who requested anonymity. "What the Reason Foundation is advocating is politically dead on arrival," the source said. "If you don't think the airlines, general aviation and labor are listened to in Congress, you are in a different town than I am." Poole said he had discussed the proposal with Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, and would soon bring it up with Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the new chairman of the House Subcommittee on Aviation within the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Mica's office did not return phone calls requesting comment on Poole's report.
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