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Shutdown of U.K. Airspace Highlights Failure of Privatized Air Traffic Control Systems - (2/26/2002)

WASHINGTON – The seven-month-old, part-privatized air traffic control system in the United Kingdom, already reeling from mounting financial woes and needing a government bailout last week just to survive, received an added dose of privatization reality last weekend when a staff shortage forced the shutdown of an airspace corridor.

Because staffing is spread so thin, a single case of a controller out on sick leave precipitated the closure of a 200-mile belt of airspace. Additionally, a source at National Air Traffic Services told The Guardian, “The morale here is absolutely dreadful.”

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which strongly opposes privatization, is closely watching this situation. Privatization advocates in the United States foolishly point to what they call “successes” in both the U.K. and Canada to justify their scheme, according to NATCA President John Carr, who says the word “failure” now applies. Carr emphasized that even the so-called non-profit model puts cost cutting ahead of safety and security. “At the end of the day, the privatized providers have to do whatever is necessary to make the next payment on the bank loans used to finance the privatization,” Carr said. “Where they once used the fees paid by airline passengers to invest in building aviation infrastructure and staffing the system, they are now utilizing that money to make interest payments on huge bank loans.”

Carr said the U.K.’s problems have exposed the system’s fragility. “As traffic rebounds from the post-Sept. 11 downturn, the impact of this type of event will increase exponentially. The U.S. and European air traffic capacity was straining at its seams last summer and we can expect to see that type of saturation again soon. Therefore, it is irresponsible for one air traffic service provider to run so close to the margins that one controller’s illness can delay traffic on both sides of the Atlantic.”

NATCA has long maintained air traffic control is an inherently governmental function and that a national infrastructure requires long-term planning and staffing. The union is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure the U.S. government keeps its promise to provide the world’s safest, most complex and most efficient air traffic system. Inexplicably, the Bush Administration – for the second straight year – has proposed a budget supporting the concept of privatization. If a planned performance-based organization (PBO) within the Department of Transportation that would focus on improved management of air traffic services is not effective after one year, the Administration says, alternatives will include “partial privatization and franchise operation of components of the air traffic system.”

“The Administration is foolishly and recklessly theorizing that a business model used for expanding fast-food restaurant chains could somehow be applied to the U.S. air traffic control system, which holds the safety of air travelers as its sacred trust,” Carr stated. “This so-called ‘partial privatization’ in the U.K. should serve as an important lesson: You cannot put profits ahead of safety and security and expect to be doing anything for air travelers other than putting them at risk.”

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