WASHINGTON - Airport and airline officials gave strong support yesterday to a bill that would allow the Federal Aviation Administration to contract out the jobs of more than 2,000 controllers, saying the move would save money without harming safety.
The bill, which would authorize $60 billion in spending by the aviation administration over the next four years, also provides money for war risk insurance, security improvements and air traffic control modernizations, according to James C. May, the president and chief executive of the Air Transport Association, the airline trade group.
Unions representing air traffic controllers, some of whom could see their jobs contracted out to private companies under the bill, have been lobbying to defeat the measure. Their supporters said they would seek a brief extension of the current authorization, which expires Sept. 30.
The new bill, now in the form of a conference report reconciling House and Senate versions, would allow the aviation agency to contract out 2,000 jobs of controllers who work in Flight Service Stations, offices that do not direct traffic but provide briefings, mostly to private pilots, on weather and temporary airspace restrictions. It would also allow the agency to contract out hundreds of other jobs at 69 air traffic towers, mostly at smaller airports but also at some large ones.
The union representing the tower controllers, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, has been fighting the bill. At the National Association of Air Traffic Specialists, which represents the flight service station controllers, Darrell Mounts, a regional director in Denver, said his group had attended a recent meeting of private pilots and had collected more than 1,000 signatures on a petition against privatization.
Supporters of the bill say the number of jobs to be contracted out is quite small.
"The unions that oppose this conference report are using the old Washington trick of dressing up a sheep in wolf's clothing, and selling a fear of wolves," Charles Barclay, president of the American Association of Airport Executives, said at a news conference called to support the bill. "This is hardly the description of a privatization wolf."
But John Carr, the president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said this is more than a case of the camel getting its nose into the tent. "It's the camel sitting in the tent, having a mai tai, and you're paying for it," he said.
The Bush administration has instructed federal agencies to evaluate 800,000 jobs to see if they could be privatized. President Bill Clinton had defined the air traffic control jobs as "inherently governmental" in nature and thus not subject to privatization review, but President Bush dropped the designation.
The controllers and their supporters say federal employees are safer than contract employees. Rep. James L. Oberstar of Minnesota, the ranking Democrat on the House aviation subcommittee, said in a conference call with reporters yesterday that providing air traffic control would come down to an argument along the lines of "Buy it from Joe's Air Service - no, Acme's got a lower bid."
But May, of the airline trade group, said union opposition was "a contrived issue of self interest."