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Consumer Groups Urge Senate to Oppose Air Traffic Control Privatization

Consumers Union
Consumer Federation of America
US Public Research Group

August 28, 2003
Dear Senator:
We are writing to express our opposition to provisions in the recently filed conference report to H.R. 2115, Vision 100 – Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act, which would authorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to begin to privatize the country’s air traffic control (ATC) system. The nation’s air transportation must be, above all else, safe. This legislation takes a step backwards from this important standard by threatening the effectiveness of key components to the FAA workforce. With the entire aviation industry struggling through perhaps the most difficult financial period in its history, it is no time to experiment with our ATC workforce, which is so vital to safe air travel.
In particular, we are distressed by the inclusion of language in the conference report that allows for the contracting-out of air traffic control employees at locations across the country. When the House and Senate considered this legislation independently, both bodies passed provisions that more adequately provided protections for ATC job functions – air traffic controllers, system specialists and flight service station technicians. Given the enormous security failures that resulted from the outsourcing of security screening services at airports, it is not surprising that there is broad support in Congress for including measures that would ensure a public workforce and a safer aviation system. We are very disappointed that the Conference Committee capitulated to the demands of some in the Administration and inserted language into the bill that would directly authorize ATC privatization.
Other countries have tried to privatize their ATC systems in recent years, and have encountered significant problems, with increases in near-misses or actual airplane crashes, greater delays, and higher costs and fees on passengers. In Canada, where ATC privatization was established in 1998, the nation’s Transportation Safety Board found understaffing at some towers has been a persistent problem and may have contributed to near mid-air collisions in their air space. Canada’s ATC authorities concede they have been operating with a major revenue shortfall and plan to proceed with a service charge increase effective August 1, 2003, which will be passed on to consumers.
More recent privatization initiatives in Great Britain have not fared any better, with flight delays caused by ATC increasing 20 percent since the system was out-sourced, according to reports in The London Daily Telegraph. Of greater concern, there were more than 220 “near misses” of airplanes over Britain during 2002, according to the UK Airprox Board, which assesses such incidents. The Board found that these incidents had risen to their highest levels in a decade, while the volume of traffic has been lower than normal.
Our ATC network is far more complex than any other in the world, with more than nine million flights and nearly 700 million passengers moved through the system annually. It handles this workload while playing a vital role in defense of our homeland by coordinating the national air space for both our military and civilian aircraft. The importance of this national security function was highlighted in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, when our ATC system grounded over 5,000 planes in under five hours and supplied direction for military aircraft in defense of our country.
While processing a massive volume of traffic and assisting in national defense, the ATC workforce also has established and maintained one of the safest systems in the world. The National Transportation Safety Board recently reported that 2002 was the safest year ever in U.S. aviation history. EUROCONTROL, the organization responsible for the safety of air traffic in Europe, released a report in May 2003 that held up our system as a model of efficiency, with more cost-effective facilities and a more productive workforce.
As a nation, we should be clear about the importance that we place on aviation safety and having the best air traffic control system in the world. Safety must remain the FAA’s number one priority. We can make certain of this by ensuring that our ATC system remains a Federal responsibility, with employees entirely accountable to the public and not a company’s bottom line.
We urge you to push for reconsideration of the ATC privatization language in the current conference report for FAA Reauthorization, and support a bipartisan compromise that will ensure a safer air transportation system for the American people.
Adam J. Goldberg
Policy Analyst
Consumers Union
Travis Plunkett
Legislative Director
Consumer Federation of America
Frank Clemente
Public Citizen’s Congress Watch