A Democratic Senator is promising to fight aviation funding legislation because of a provision that expands the Bush administration’s authority to contract out air traffic controller jobs.

(Photo from the office of Sen. Frank Lautenberg)

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) told reporters Aug. 1 that he will attempt to block passage of the four-year aviation reauthorization measure when it comes before the full Senate after Labor Day.

If he is successful, his effort could delay approval of the bill’s proposed increases in Airport Improvement Program construction grants and a new fund to finance airport security projects. The legislation authorizes $14.2 billion for AIP and $2 billion for the security fund ($1 billion of which would be guaranteed) over four years.

The bill would be the successor to AIR-21–the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act, which was passed in 2000.

On July 25, Republican House and Senate conferees approved a compromise version of the new aviation bill, with the controller contracting provision inserted, although it didn’t appear in the versions that passed each chamber earlier.

The provision would expand the Federal Aviation Administration’s ability to contract out positions to an additional 69 towers around the country. A Lautenberg aide said there are a total of about 1,000 workers at those locations.


Moreover, the provision also would end other controllers protection from having their jobs contracted out in four years.

Lautenberg said he would attempt to stop the conference report on the floor or perhaps carry out a filibuster.

"We’re going to do all that we can to stop this dangerous plan from taking effect," he said.

An aide said that conference reports can’t be amended on the floor. Passage would require a simple majority. Lautenberg’s options would include attempting to have the Senate "recommit" the bill with instructions to drop the controller provision, or to launch a filibuster.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association strongly opposes the contracting-out language.

Lautenberg said that Bush administration officials had threatened to veto the aviation bill if it didn’t include the contracting provision, which the Senator said, "unnerved" Republican leaders.

The Federal Aviation Administration supports the controller contracting provision. "It allows the FAA the management flexibility…to be able to save money," says Laura Brown, an agency spokesperson.

The FAA has contracted out staffing at low-volume control towers since 1982 and now has 219 towers in the program. The towers are in locations where pilots operate under visual flight rules, not instrument flight rules. Brown says the FAA estimates the contract tower program saves more than $54 million a year.