NATCA backs air traffic control privatization plan

The labor organization that represents more than 19,000 air traffic controllers, engineers and safety-related professionals is backing a plan to privatize the nation’s air traffic control.

The labor organization that represents more than 19,000 air traffic controllers, engineers and safety-related professionals is backing a plan to privatize the nation’s air traffic control.

National Air Traffic Controllers Association President NATCA President Paul Rinaldi, in Feb. 10 testimony to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, outlined his organization’s support for the air traffic control reform proposal, which is contained in a pending FAA reauthorization bill (H.R. 4441). The measure would shift responsibility for air traffic control out of the federal space and move it over a three-year period into a nonprofit entity created for that purpose.

According to the bill’s sponsor, Transportation Committee Chair Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act would move more than 30,000 people off the government payroll.

While NATCA has endorsed the privatization scheme, its support comes on the condition that its members’ current pay, retirement and healthcare benefits, and work protections are preserved under any new regime.

“In order to maintain NATCA’s support, any new system must ensure that our members are fully protected in their employment relationship,” Rinaldi stated in written testimony. “Maintaining our members’ pay and benefits, including retirement and health care, along with our negotiated agreements for their work rules, are crucial to us.”

“If at any time there are changes to this bill,” he cautioned, “we will immediately examine them to ensure the bill continues to align with our organization’s policies, practices, and principles. We reserve the right to withhold our support if any changes cause the bill to violate our principles.”

While NATCA may back the proposed change, seven other unions that represent Federal Aviation Administration employees are set against it. Those labor groups this week sent a letter to the committee's leadership, and to the leaders of its aviation subcommittee, objecting to the privatization measure.

The seven unions—the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, American Federation of Government Employees, American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, Laborers’ International Union of North America, National Association of Government Employees, National Federation of Federal Employees, and Professional Association of Aeronautical Center Employees—maintain that the legislation fails to guarantee employees access to a grievance process, cuts whistleblower protections, and makes changes to future pay, healthcare and retirement benefits, among other objections.

“Essentially, H.R.4441 takes today’s labor framework and removes major pieces of the law or considerably weakens it,” the unions said. The labor groups also claim the proposed change would slow the transition to a next-generation air traffic control system.

“Now is not the time to interrupt efforts to modernize the air traffic control system,” the unions opposing the measure said. “Now is the time to move forward, continuing to allow the introduction of new technologies, doing so with a cohesive group of federal employees from every division of the agency.”

Proponents of the measure, including NATCA, point to successful privatization efforts in other countries.

“A not-for-profit independent organization run by a board of stakeholders could deliver results similar to those we have seen in Canada where NavCanada has had two decades to prove itself as a safe and innovative airspace system,” Rinaldi said.

But the other unions took issue with that assessment.

“Many proponents of privatizing the U.S. air traffic control system view it the same as privatized air traffic systems in other countries,” their letter stated. “However, the U.S. air traffic control system is, quite simply, incomparable in size, scope and complexity to any other aviation system in the world. On a typical day, the FAA manages approximately 70,000 flights, safely transporting nearly 2 million travelers. In 2014, this equaled roughly 763 million passengers. For comparison, the aviation system in Canada carried approximately 75 million passengers—a difference of over 680 million passengers.

“Our country far outnumbers Canada in terms of facilities as well, with the United States having 21 Air Route Traffic Control Centers and 315 air traffic control towers compared with Canada’s seven and 40, respectively,” the letter stated. "Simply stated, there is no comparison to the safest, most complex system in the world.”

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