Bush's air traffic move draws flak

The same week President Bush unveiled his plan to create a Cabinet-level Homeland Security Department, he also amended a Clinton administration executive order to ensure that government could continue contracting with private companies for air traffic control.

On June 4, Bush deleted the phrase "an inherently governmental function" describing air traffic control from a Dec. 7, 2000, executive order that authorized the establishment of an air traffic performance-based organization within the Federal Aviation Administration.

In separate news releases June 7, the two major unions representing airways employees reacted angrily to the deletion, calling it "a giant step backwards for America's homeland defense" and "a slap in the face."

"Our concern is that the radar that monitors our skies, and the voice and radio systems that provide critical communications capabilities should be maintained and certified by committed public servants, answerable to the American people, and not controlled by private interests mostly concerned about a bottom line," said Michael Fanfalone, president of the Professional Airways Systems Specialists.

Bush's amendment "does nothing to improve the safety or security of our National Airspace System and seems designed only to pacify the pro-privatization proponents in his own administration," said John Carr, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Transportation Department Secretary Norman Mineta said in a statement June 12 that he has no intention of initiating a debate on any large-scale privatization of air traffic control.

"The goal of the deletion is to make clear that the executive order did not inadvertently preclude the continuation of the successful tower contract program," the DOT statement says.

The FAA "has for many years contracted with private companies to staff air traffic control towers at small airports," the statement continues. "This program involves 206 contractor towers handling approximately 23 percent of flights and has been very successful.... Despite its success, the FAA's contract tower program has been the subject of protracted litigation with [NATCA] for many years."

The FAA had no comment on the amendment.

Meanwhile, the Transportation Security Administration announced June 7 that it would deploy federal security screeners at two airports this month. The Aviation and Transportation Security Act, signed by Bush in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, mandates that TSA federalize security screeners.

"Well, at least your underwear's safety is an inherently governmental function," Carr said.

The international aviation union also came out against the change in a June 11 news release, saying it strips a guarantee designed to protect against privatization.

"Privatization in the UK has proved a financial disaster, while commercialized providers in Canada and Australia are struggling," said Shane Enright, aviation secretary of the International Transport Workers' Federation, of privatization efforts in other countries. "Congress recently decided that the private sector cannot be trusted to run security-critical screening. What evidence we have suggests that bankers would be no better if they got their hands on air traffic control."

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