Unions oppose transferring air traffic control to the military

Unions representing airline industry workers will fight a plan to transfer the nation's air traffic control workforce to the military, saying such a move would create a political food fight and jeopardize aviation safety.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., is floating a proposal that would shift command of the air traffic control workforce to the Defense Department. Mica plans to hold a hearing Nov. 6 to discuss the possibility.

"As we assess the future of our air traffic control systems, this would be a good time to consider the merits of transferring air traffic control to the military," said Gary Burns, a spokesman for Mica.

Burns said Mica is making the proposal because the military is highly professional and does not "get bogged down in union politics." He added that Mica believes such a move would save money.

However, he acknowledged the proposal would not fly with unions. "By transferring this function over to the military, you have no more union jobs," he said.

Tens of thousands of airline industry workers are employed by the Federal Aviation Administration and represented by unions such as the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), the Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS) and the National Association of Air Traffic Specialists (NAATS).

During the last few months, the unions have been fighting against language inserted into the FAA reauthorization bill that would allow the privatization of air traffic controller jobs. Republicans inserted the language during conference negotiations, even though the original reauthorization bills passed by both the House and Senate expressly prohibited the privatization of the air traffic control workforce. Now the unions may face a battle to prevent their jobs from going to the military.

"Make no mistake, we are firmly against this idea because it would not be a wise move for the national airspace system," said NATCA spokesman Doug Church. "We have the best system in the world right now and there is no reason to change it."

Church added that his union's opposition isn't about just protecting union jobs, but about protecting the safety of passengers and airlines.

PASS President Tom Brantley said in a statement on Wednesday that aviation safety is a national priority and should not become a political football.

"America's armed services are there to respond to threats to our national security," he said, "and they seem to be pretty occupied these days fulfilling their mission. To suggest injecting these dedicated men and women into the middle of a political food fight is just an attempt to divert attention from the real issue at hand-selling certification of the air traffic control system to private interests."

Burns acknowledged the military is stretched thin with deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, but said he believes Defense has the capacity to absorb the responsibility of conducting civil air traffic control.

"From a policy proposal, we're not suggesting that you put your special force operatives in there," he said. "We're suggesting that they have personnel that work on military control towers and we're questioning whether this should be expanded."