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Bush Official Fumbles Essential Air Traffic Control Safety Question - (6/10/2002)

WASHINGTON - National Air Traffic Controllers Association President John Carr was flabbergasted watching White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card stumble over the question of air traffic control privatization Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” Carr noted, “The administration thinks it can dupe the American people into believing we should follow the failed path of privatization and jeopardize aviation safety to boot.”

“We are more than happy to do our public service for the country and tell them how privatization has turned out to be a failure worldwide,” said Carr, one day after Card not only refused to say controllers are essential to national security but touted Canada as a model for United States air traffic control. “I wonder how this administration is going to feel about Canada’s alleged success when its air traffic controllers go out on strike July 19,” Carr said.

Carr outlined glaring safety-related evidence concerning the three most prominent nations to privatize their air traffic control services - Great Britain, Canada and Australia - to open the debate:

Britain’s 11-month-old, partially privatized air traffic control system -- the National Air Traffic Services (NATS) - is facing yet another financial crisis. NATS’ attempt to increase the fees it charges the airlines was denied, leaving it facing bankruptcy. The beleaguered NATS also is dealing with persistent performance setbacks. A computer crash last month at its new facility in Swanwick, the third such incident in less than two months, caused numerous flight cancellations and delays. This after the government gave NATS 30 million pounds as a bailout in March. NATS originally promised lower fees over the first three years of privatization but now says that over the next four years, it will have a 230-million-pound revenue shortfall. Seven airlines, which own 46 percent of NATS, are not so keen on privatization anymore. Bottom line: The 60-million-pound profit the airlines predicted they would gain from privatizing the system has instead turned into a loss of 80 million pounds.

Last year, the Bush administration proposed a study of the “success” of privatized systems such as Nav Canada. This “success” never materialized. Canada announced last fall it would seek to raise its fees by six percent to help cover a projected $145 million revenue shortfall. Nav Canada’s CEO John Crichton said his company is facing a “major crisis” (Montreal Gazette). Air Canada President Robert Milton said, “I think we have a long way to reach the levels of efficiency that exist in the U.S.” The company also faces a potential strike by its 2,300 air traffic controllers. The workers' contract expired March 31. Under privatization, they face long shifts, mandatory overtime and six-day work weeks. Staffing continues as a problem, inhibiting their ability to adequately control key sectors. Eighty percent of Canadian controllers, in a survey, said they would leave if they received the same benefits and pay elsewhere.

Air traffic controllers walked out of airports earlier this year to protest stalled pay talks. Civil Air Operations Officers Association President Ted Lang said the strike was a final bid to have Airservices Australia, a government authority, listen to controllers on a number of issues but, in particular, safety concerns about on-the-job stress and fatigue. Airservices Australia has considered severely limiting assistance to airplanes in trouble, because of liability concerns. The Australian obtained a confidential draft document dealing with a 1995 Cessna 210 crash that killed three people and led to a lawsuit against Airservices. The document says the case could have adverse "wider implications." "If so," it says, "Airservices may be forced to severely limit our capacity to assist aircraft in distress."

“Mr. Card’s comments on Sunday, while insulting and disingenuous to the nation’s air traffic controllers, are dangerously misinformed,” Carr said. “The administration should have known this was a bad idea for months, especially after we proved our worth as inherently governmental employees on Sept. 11. I fear the administration is ignoring the warning signs that come with privatization - profits over safety.”

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