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NATCA President Challenges Safety of Privatized Air Traffic Control - (9/24/2003)

NATCA President John Carr Tells House Subcommittee That Passenger Safety Should Remain Top Concern

WASHINGTON - John Carr, President of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, told a House Subcommittee today that safety will be jeopardized if air traffic control towers are sold off to private contractors and called upon Congress to ask why contract towers are not held to the same safety standards as FAA towers.

Carr told the House Subcommittee on Aviation that "contract towers have no specific safety standards. Members of Congress need to ask why. Why should one tower be held to a different safety standard than another?" Carr went on to state that the Inspector General himself stated in his report that "neither the FAA contract towers nor the FAA-staffed VFR towers have a system for automatically reporting operational errors."

Carr noted that at FAA towers, "the FAA determines how many controllers are required based solely on how many are needed to ensure safety. Staffing numbers are determined for each shift and adjusted to meet fluctuating traffic demands, seasonal changes and other needs. So the real question to ask is how many people are looking out for safety in the contract towers? We cannot get an answer from the contractors on how many people staff each tower, but we do know this, and the Inspector General knows it, as well: There is one staffing standard for contract towers and one for FAA towers. And the standard applied to contract towers is shielded from public view because of the need to protect 'competition sensitive' information. But, I ask this Committee, what could be more sensitive than protecting our safety?"

Carr also addressed the cost issue raised in the Inspector General's report stating that, "It stands to reason that costs are lower if you have fewer people watching the skies. The Inspector General himself put it best in his report when he stated, 'FAA's costs to operate low activity towers by contract are less than the costs incurred when FAA operated the towers. This occurred because contract towers are staffed with fewer controllers.' This is hardly a groundbreaking business plan. This same logic could be applied to your local firehouse, and a reduction in staffing there would scarcely be noticed until the first big fire broke out."

Carr said he had heard from dozens of contract controllers about safety concerns stemming from cost and staffing pressures. "We do not question the quality of those controllers, most of whom are former FAA or military controllers who are capable of doing excellent work," Carr said. "But we do question a system that has deprived them of the support that they need. Little or no training, slashed staff, no drug testing, no quality control - these issues are raised again and again across the country. Our government must ensure that the problems at the current contract towers do not become a national problem by selling out our entire system to private companies."

Carr reminded the Committee that it was only a few weeks ago that the country received a wake-up call from the Columbia Accident Investigative Report. He asked the Committee to "please heed the lessons of Mission Control when it comes to determining the future of air traffic control."

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