Politics & Policy

Air-Traffic Control Needs Real Privatization

(John Wollwerth/Dreamstime)

In a letter to the editor, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Representative Bill Shuster, states that my column, “Privatize Air Traffic Control? Not If It’s a Union Giveaway” “contains serious factual errors about the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act of 2016.” Yet Chairman Shuster fails to identify a single error in my column.

Chairman Shuster states that “the AIRR Act will end the federal government’s decades-long, costly, and serial failure to modernize our antiquated ATC system.” That statement is simply untrue. The AIRR Act shifts air-traffic control from one federal agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, to “a federally chartered, not-for-profit corporation to be known as the ‘ATC Corporation.’” This is not a private enterprise, but a congressionally sanctioned monopoly with an unfettered ability to raise user fees on those who travel.

Chairman Shuster states that the bill would not allow air-traffic controllers to strike. The Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute carried over in the new AIRR Act specifies that striking is an unfair labor practice. But there is no financial penalty for an unfair labor practice. If a strike occurred, and it was termed an unfair labor practice by the Federal Labor Relations Authority, there would be no remedy for the ATC Corporation other than to pursue arbitration, and there is no consequence for the striking employees if they lose, other than to go back to work. Travelers throughout the United States, as well as those wanting to fly into the United States, could be stranded at vast expense and inconvenience.

The statute that prohibits striking is found at 5 U.S. Code § 7311. The one that requires an oath against striking is found at 5 U.S. Code § 3333. Neither is carried over, as I noted in my column.

The new ATC Corporation would continue to be governed by existing collective-bargaining contracts. The Office of Personnel Management reported in 2014 that the Department of Transportation paid more than $17 million in fiscal year 2012, the latest data available, for career civil-service employees to work on “official time” — defined as time federal workers spend working for their unions rather than for taxpayers. The bill would not end “official time.”

In fiscal year 2011, Uncle Sam was paying 19 air-traffic controllers, all members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), to work full-time as union representatives rather than handling air traffic. Eighteen earned six-figure salaries. A list of the 35 Department of Transportation employees who were on full-time official time, doing no work for the federal government, can be found here, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request from Americans for Limited Government. The air-traffic controllers were paid an average salary of $158,971, for a cost to taxpayers of $3.2 million a year. Five air-traffic controllers were paid $179,000 annually to do no work for the taxpayer. Since the old union contract carries over, the new ATC Corporation would continue this practice.

#share#This misuse of government funds is one reason that air-traffic control needs to be privatized. However, if current contracts continue, and NATCA is involved in future negotiations, travesties such as “official time” will continue. Negotiations will involve a stronger union that has a new tool of binding arbitration. Under binding arbitration, the employer and the union are required to accept the decision of the arbitrators – two out of three of which are handpicked by the union.

At a hearing on February 10, Paul Rinaldi, president of NATCA, said: “One of the things that we wanted to make sure that was captured in law was a fair negotiating process, a mediation and binding arbitration. And as it stands now, that does carry over. That is something we will watch closely because if that is not part of the bill, we will have a big problem with it.” (Emphasis added.)

In the bill, union approval is required for decision-making for transfers of personnel, services, and facilities between the FAA and the new ATC Corporation. In addition, unions have to be consulted on numerous other issues, including but not limited to safety-enhancing equipment, the safety workforce-training strategy, a Regional Consistency Communications Board, and a Remote Tower Pilot Program.

Why doesn’t Shuster simply drop the pro-union provisions and add a no-strike clause to his bill?

Why does not Chairman Shuster simply drop the pro-union provisions and add a no-strike clause to his bill? As I mentioned in my column, Shuster received $118,000 this election cycle from unions, and $170,000 in the 2014 cycle. The bill was heavily influenced by the lobbying group Airlines for America (A4A), which issued a statement praising the bill on the day that it was introduced. Chairman Shuster has, as he described it, “a private and personal relationship” with Shelley Rubino, vice president for global government affairs at A4A. Ms. Rubino was formerly chief of staff to the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Representative John Larson (Conn.). Chairman Shuster’s chief of staff, Eric Burgeson, is married to a senior vice president for global government affairs at A4A, Christine BurgesonChris Brown, formerly A4A’s vice president for legislative and regulatory policy, is Shuster’s staff director for the subcommittee on aviation, which drafted the bill.

The air-traffic control system certainly needs privatization. But what Chairman Shuster has proposed is not privatization: It’s only shifting around the proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic.

— Diana Furchtgott-Roth is a senior fellow and director of Economics21 at the Manhattan Institute. She is the co-author, with Jared Meyer, of Disinherited: How Washington Is Betraying America’s Young.

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