In the face of growing legislative and publicity campaigns to prevent such a move, the FAA continues to insist there are no plans to privatize air traffic control. "We have absolutely no plans or desire to expand or increase contracting out of air traffic services," FAA spokesman Greg Martin told AVweb. Martin's comments came after the Office of Management and Budget's formal announcement that air traffic control is now on its list of "commercial activities" instead of being "inherently governmental." Martin said the decision, which was announced two months ago but only formally applied last week, is based purely on semantics. "The definition for 'inherently governmental' is so strict that air traffic control services don't fit," Martin said. He noted that the private sector already runs ATC at numerous smaller airports in the U.S. and several countries, including Canada and Britain, have contracted out their entire ATC systems. But opponents to the OMB listing, notably the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, maintain that ATC is a vital government function, at least as important as airport baggage screening, which the government took over from the private sector last year. NATCA insists that ATC fits the OMB criterion that government services are "so intimately related to the public interest as to mandate performance by federal employees."
Leading the charge to stop from ever happening what purportedly won't happen anytime soon, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) now has the backing of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) who introduced a bill (S. 338) that would enshrine air traffic control as a government responsibility. NATCA spokesman Doug Church said the bill already has won the support of at least six Republican senators and representatives. The FAA's Martin told AVweb that FAA Administrator Marion Blakey has personally assured both Lautenberg and NATCA President John Carr that ATC will not be privatized. "The answer is an emphatic 'No,'" said Martin. AOPA has added its voice to the circus, too, but for slightly different reasons. President Phil Boyer said AOPA is afraid privatization will lead to fees being charged for ATC services, as has happened in Britain and Canada. "Pilots have a long history of fighting fees for air traffic control services," he said. There's also the question of whether the government actually saves money by privatizing ATC. On Feb. 20, NATCA will release the findings of a white paper by Columbia University Professor Elliot Sclar. "Pitfalls of Air Traffic Control Privatization" challenges the assumed cost savings and also raises questions about safety and security effects.
All the attention to tower controllers has had a welcome spinoff for flight service station personnel. Wally Pike, president of the National Association of Air Traffic Specialists (NAATS), met with Lautenberg Thursday and the senator agreed to include FSS personnel in his anti-privatization bill. FSS services such as pilot briefings and weather advisories have been considered a commercial activity for several years and there is now a review (an A76 study) being done to see what parts of that system can be safely and economically turned over to private enterprise. Pike described Lautenberg as "very supportive" of the NAATS position that FSS services remain in government hands. Lautenberg's amendment to include flight services puts AOPA in a difficult situation. Although stridently opposed to ATC privatization, AOPA has been generally supportive of the A76 study into flight services, always with the proviso that it not result in any fees to pilots. In the past, AOPA has said the FSS system needs modernization and upgrading and it viewed the privatization study as a way to potentially improve services to pilots. Meanwhile, the FAA's Martin said Lautenberg's bill will have no effect on the FSS review. "We will continue with the A76 study." Pike admitted the support, while welcome, isn't likely to make his job that much easier. "We have a long way to go and very twisted road to travel," he said. "Still, we're better off this week than we were a couple of weeks ago."