Unions again split on GOP plan to privatize air traffic control

Aviation unions split again on the latest Republican scheme to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system – and turn control of controllers, towers and airspace over to a supposedly non-profit corporation run by an airline-dominated board.

The plan, floated at a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing in May, comes as the Federal Aviation Administration, parent agency for the controllers, faces renewed congressional criticism for a botched plan to transition airspace control from 1950s-era technology – radar – to a global positioning system (GPS)-based model.

And Congress again needs to reauthorize, and set standards for, the FAA.

Reeling off a list of partial FAA fixes since 1995, Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., declared that “all have failed to result in an FAA that runs more like a business. The FAA will always perform like a massive bureaucracy.

“And it is the only DOT agency that serves as both a transportation service provider and the safety regulator. Regulating itself is an inherent conflict of interest, and separating the two functions is simply good government. It’s time for reform that is truly transformational,” he said.

But unlike last time Congress considered privatizing the system, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents 14,000 controllers and almost 6,000 other air traffic workers, is not unabashedly for doing so. It’s willing to agree to privatization, but only if certain pro-worker conditions are met, union President Paul Rinaldi testified.

That’s not the position of seven other aviation groups, including both unions and managers at the FAA. They told solons in a letter they oppose privatizing air traffic control.

Rinaldi argues the current air traffic control system is broken, hurting workers, airlines, travelers and the U.S. economy. Past solutions, including privatization plans, were inadequate, he said. A new one must not operate for profit and must include several principles:

Stable and predictable money for air traffic control. Rinaldi said leaving the FAA at the mercy of congressional appropriations – the current process – produces uncertainty about where dollars will come from and how many will be available, even including the revenue from the ticket taxes air passengers now pay. That uncertainty harms staffing, hiring, training, long-term modernization of the system and preventive maintenance of its aging towers and tracks.

Full protection of controllers’ pay, benefits, work rules and rights on the job. That includes retirement and health care benefits, as air traffic control is among the nation’s most-stressful occupations, Rinaldi said. Controllers retire earlier than other federal workers, due to the pressure.

Keeping safety and efficiency as the top two priorities. “We cannot allow maintenance to lag or reduce staffing to save money. The National Airspace System must be fully staffed to ensure both safety and efficiency,” he said. “As of March 18, 2017, the FAA only had 10,532 Certified Professional Controllers” – the most-veteran and highly trained – “on board. That number is more than 2,300 CPCs short of the FAA’s overall operational target of 12,896…Stop-and-go funding has only made the problem worse.” And one-third of the CPCs are eligible to retire this year.

The situation is even worse at big and complex air traffic control towers, which control not just airports, but the airspace for miles around them. Rinaldi said the New York TRACON tower, which handles flights into and out of Kennedy, Newark, LaGuardia and several other airports, has 134 CPCs out of the 226 it needs, while Atlanta has 63 of its 102 and Chicago  has 62 of its 100. Less-experienced “developmental” controllers are also training at all three, but training takes at least 15-18 months and many of them flunk, Rinaldi said.

The system must serve everybody. That includes rural communities where service has been subsidized for decades following airline deregulation, and the carriers abandoned them as unprofitable. The federal government shores up the service to those cities through the Essential Air Service program, but there are periodic demands to end it.

“We cannot emphasize enough how important it is that a new system continues to provide services to the diverse users” including regular jets, freight services, the small planes for small communities and private planes, said Rinaldi. “The United States has a vibrant general aviation community that relies on us. At the same time, rural America’s economic success is connected to the access we create with our comprehensive NAS.”

In their letter to lawmakers, the other unions and groups of managers flatly opposed privatizing air traffic control. Signers were the American Federation of Government Employees, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the FAA Managers Association, the National Association of Government Employees, National Federation of Federal Employees/IAM, the Professional Association of Aeronautical Center Employees and the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists.

The air traffic control “system can only continue to modernize through stakeholder collaboration and consideration of the entire aviation industry and community. A private corporation operated as a monopoly and run primarily by the airline industry will be unable to move forward at the same pace,” they wrote.

“Quite simply, overhauling the entire aviation system by removing air traffic control from federal oversight and funding will be a serious setback for its development and growth. Our air traffic control system is a national public asset and we strongly believe it should remain in the public trust.

“Privatization is unlikely to make the system more efficient or less costly, but would introduce a significant level of uncertainty.  As representatives of thousands of FAA employees, both labor and management, we oppose privatization of any of the functions or services within the FAA. We are prepared to…work to ensure the FAA federal workforce continues performing their critical duties to keep” the “aviation system safe.”

Source: PAI