Bush Administration trips on ATC privatization issue

 - April 14, 2008, 9:54 AM

In a move seen by many observers as a first step in privatizing the nation’s ATC services, President Bush amended an executive order issued by President Clinton in December 2000 that made ATC an “inherently governmental function.”

Most of the aviation industry and many in Congress oppose privatization of ATC, and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, a former congressman, immediately went into damage-control mode. According to the Associated Press, he denied that the Administration has plans to turn over the ATC system to private industry, and suggested that the wording change could have been made to ensure that the FAA’s privately operated contract control tower program would continue.

Bush’s action prompted an outcry from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca) and AOPA, and a more muted response from NBAA. Natca said it was a “slap in the face” to controllers who worked Air Force One on September 11 and landed almost 5,000 airplanes in two hours. AOPA said it was “flabbergasted” that the Bush Administration thinks that aviation security and safety are not a government function.

NBAA reiterated its opposition to ATC privatization, saying it supported enactment of the Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR-21), which called for a performance-based organization (PBO) to run ATC services, with the “understanding that ATC would be a government function.” The International Transport Workers’ Federation weighed in that “privatization in the UK has proved a financial disaster, while commercialized providers in Canada and Australia are struggling.”

Natca said it was especially galled and outraged that the executive order came just 17 days after the deputy secretary of Transportation told a nationally televised gathering of several hundred controllers in Washington that the President “understands how important your job is, and how important your work is. He supports you, he’s been praising you.”

AOPA said the Administration’s position is particularly incomprehensible at a time when the government is taking airport security functions away from private industry and consolidating homeland security into a huge new department.

Warning that a privatized ATC would undoubtedly be financed by user fees, AOPA noted that Congress has historically opposed ATC privatization schemes such as those in Canada and the UK. Both of those systems have encountered financial difficulties when downturns in air traffic reduced revenues to below the operating costs of the ATC systems, it said.

Natca said the “inherently governmental” language, which originated in an Office of Management and Budget circular on the contracting out of government positions, found its way into Clinton’s executive order mandating the formation of a PBO for ATC, headed by a COO. The designation is reserved for those positions that are “so intrinsically linked with the public interest as to mandate their performance by federal employees,” the union explained.