Air traffic control 'commercial'

The Federal Aviation Administration's decision to declare air traffic control a commercial activity, instead of an inherently governmental function, has angered union officials.

"We are convinced that aviation safety will be threatened in the next two years," said John Carr, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "Cash-strapped private companies cut services, training and staffing to make ends meet. It's not smart public policy to cut safety-related functions."

Agencies must identify all functions they consider suitable for outsourcing to the private sector, under the Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act of 1998.

The Transportation Department's latest list, which includes the FAA's information, was released Dec. 9.

Word got out last week that the FAA placed air traffic control in the commercial activity grouping as a "category A."

That means that what "controllers do is so fundamentally critical to [the agency's] mission they are not subject to cost comparisons and competitive outsourcing," said Greg Martin, a spokesman for the FAA. "As these definitions continue to undergo different interpretation and continue to be more defined there has been a shift. For now, that's what we had to work with.

"There's no intention to privatize," Martin said.

But NATCA isn't convinced.

"It's a slippery slope," Carr said. "This year's A is next year's B." Other functions, such as airways systems specialists, have been moved, he said.

"It's clearly this administration's philosophical design... and tilt towards business," he continued.

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

NATCA can appeal the most recent change of status, according to Martin.

The union plans to work on legislation to undo the decision, picket and distribute leaflets at airports, and form coalitions within the aviation industry, Carr said.

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