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Leading Consumer Groups Join the Fight against Privatization of Air Traffic Control - (9/3/2003)

WASHINGTON -- Citing concerns about the safety of the traveling public, the nation’s leading consumer groups – Consumers Union, Consumer Federation of America and Public Citizen’s Congress Watch – have joined the fight against efforts to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system.

In a letter to Congress, the consumer groups said, “Safety must remain the FAA’s number one priority. We can make certain of this by ensuring that our air traffic control system remains a Federal responsibility, with employees entirely accountable to the public and not a company’s bottom line.”

Noting the failure of private baggage screeners to protect the flying public, as well as the failure of air traffic control privatization schemes around the world, the groups urged Congress to reject the language in the pending Federal Aviation Administration authorization bill that would allow privatization of FAA towers currently staffed by federal employees.

“Ensuring the safety of the flying public is our number one priority,” said National Air Traffic Controllers Association President John Carr. “The leading consumer groups recognize this and are rightfully concerned that putting our air traffic control system in the hands of private companies is simply not good for public safety.”

Although both the U.S. Senate and House gave the bipartisan support earlier this summer to protect the safety of the air traffic control system – the world’s safest, largest and most efficient – language was inserted in the FAA Reauthorization bill conference report allowing privatization of air traffic control. The conference report is expected to be considered shortly.

The letter from the consumer groups also reflects overwhelming public opinion against privatizing air traffic control. More than 70 percent of the public favors keeping the system the way it is. A signed copy of the letter is attached, and is also printed below in text format.


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

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