Angering controllers, Congress considers privatizing parts of air traffic management

Congress edged closer to turning over the operation of a key portion of the nation's air traffic control system from the Federal Aviation Administration to a private entity, a move sharply questioned by the air traffic controllers union.

Representatives from both the Senate and House agreed that there is "merit in exploring" the possibility of privatizing a portion of the air traffic control system, which is currently operated by the FAA, according to the final spending bill for the Transportation Department's fiscal 2000 budget that was sent to President Clinton yesterday.

The bill calls on the National Academy of Sciences to conduct an analysis of an FAA air traffic management supervisory system designed to help the agency manage weather and traffic-related problems nationwide. The bill said that any "significant investment" in the system should not wait until the analysis, which would include an examination of privatization, is completed.

The air traffic management system oversees air traffic across the country. When an airport shuts down because of inclement weather, it's up to the roughly 500 people across the country who work in traffic management to figure out how to reroute the displaced air traffic, said Randy Schwitz, executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association labor union.

Schwitz said he was "taken aback" when he read the bill.

"We never heard anything about it. It just appeared there," he said. "I think it's a big mistake. I don't know how they can contract a service like that, when it takes an air traffic controller to have the knowledge to work these positions."

All of the people who work in air traffic management are former air traffic controllers, Schwitz said. They all lose their union membership when they became air traffic managers, he said, but recently have to begun steps to organize their own union.

Schwitz said the FAA taps only the most highly qualified traffic controllers as air traffic managers. During the past several months, he said, he has spoken to individual senators and congressmen in their offices about the need to entice the best air traffic controllers to air traffic management ranks.

These air traffic managers, Schwitz said, wield broad power, and their decisions can have major effect on the ebb and flow of aircraft movements throughout the country, relying on skills first developed as controllers.

"It's hard to imagine somebody coming off the street and understanding the work," he said. "They wouldn't have any earthly concept of what kind of impact they are having on the (air traffic control) system if they haven't worked in it. They could overload control centers."

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