Contract-tower issue stalls FAA reauthorization

 - November 26, 2007, 8:23 AM

Although Congress passed a continuing resolution in late September that was to keep the FAA operating until October 31, the political firefight over contract ATC towers continued unabated at press time.

Originally, both the House and Senate versions of a $60 billion FAA funding bill contained provisions that prohibited any form of ATC privatization. But the Bush Administration was successful in getting the compromise version of the two bills to include a clause that would allow the FAA to contract 69 control towers to private companies instead of having them staffed by FAA controllers.

That led to a howl from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), the union that represents the FAA’s 15,000 controllers. Even though NATCA has organized some of the controllers working in the current 219 contract towers, it has long opposed non-federal employees in tower cabs.

Many Democrats in Congress have sided with the union, although FAA Administrator Marion Blakey has been issuing assurances that the bill only gives her agency the option of farming out the control towers to private companies.

NATCA has spent $7 million in its public-relations campaign against contract towers, alleging they are less safe than towers staffed by the FAA’s union-represented controllers. But DOT inspector general Kenneth Mead told Congress that contract towers are actually cheaper and safer.

“Our work has repeatedly found that contract towers provide cost-effective services that are comparable to the quality and safety of FAA-staffed towers,” Mead told the House aviation subcommittee in September.

GA interests find themselves caught in the middle. While unanimously against wholesale ATC privatization and the specter of user fees that it carries, they do not want to see a bill scuttled that would provide nearly $60 billion in FAA funding over the next four years.

A coalition that included GA and commercial aviation organizations, airports, air travelers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to members of Congress calling on them to pass the conference report, titled Vision 100–the Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act. Among the signers were NBAA president Shelley Longmuir, GAMA president Ed Bolen and NATA president Jim Coyne.

Early last month NBAA told its members that it remains focused on the need for enactment because of several critically important provisions, including the $100 million in relief for general aviation entities affected by 9/11; a Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) access mandate for “qualified general aviation operations;” and increased funding for GA airports.

The association encouraged member companies and the broader business aviation community to contact their elected officials to emphasize how essential the legislation is to their companies.