Controllers' union challenges status

The union that represents more than 15,000 air traffic controllers has challenged the Federal Aviation Administration's decision to strip the profession of its inherently governmental status.

Under the Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act of 1998, agencies must identify all functions they consider suitable for outsourcing. In accordance with the FAA's recommendation, the Office of Management and Budget designated air traffic control a commercial activity in its inventory for 2002.

The change in status opens the door to privatization, union officials say.

"There cannot be any genuine disagreement that...air traffic control is an 'inherently governmental function' and not a mere 'commercial activity,' " wrote John Carr, National Air Traffic Controllers Association president, in a March 20 letter to the agency. "Given the acknowledged performance by the FAA's air traffic controllers during the course of the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy and their anticipated role in maintaining air traffic safety during the imminent Iraq conflict, the agency's attempt to demean [them] is, in this regard, a disgrace."

The FAA stands by the new label and maintains that air traffic control will not be privatized. "In our view, the situation hasn't changed," said Bill Shuman, a spokesman for the agency. "It's not going to be outsourced, and that still stands."

The association continues to voice concerns over two other looming issues: the coming wave of controller retirements and the stalled deployment of a new tool in the field.

The Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System, known as STARS, will swap aging equipment for new color displays, processors and computer software at controller facilities nationwide.

The long-delayed and over-budget system, which Raytheon Co. is developing and installing, is operational at Philadelphia International Airport, but plans to bring it to several more sites this year have been scaled back because of budget constraints.

"STARS continues to be a disappointment," said Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), speaking March 21 at a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing.

FAA Administrator Marion Blakey asked Oberstar and his colleagues to hang in there. The FAA expects STARS to provide a bigger pay-off than expected, "as we see efficiencies in deployment," Blakey said. And the agency is looking at installing a less expensive version of the system at less complex sites, she said.

Oberstar remained unimpressed. "Put me down as a critic," he said.

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