Young Maneuver Jeopardizes FAA Bill

Posted September 5, 2003 at 5:14pm

To hear House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) tell it, the Bush administration had him over a barrel when he was working this summer to craft the House-Senate compromise of a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization measure.

Young claims that in an effort to avoid a threatened presidential veto, he and Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) had to add a last-minute provision to the FAA conference report allowing the agency to privatize as many as 69 government-run air traffic control towers at small to midsize airports across the country.

“I’m, very frankly, on your side,” Young reportedly told opponents of the provision upon completion of the conference report in July. “But I’m looking for ways to get a bill.”

That sympathetic tone, however, has fallen flat with the union that represents air traffic controllers as well as its champions in Congress. Their anger stems primarily from the fact that Young used his position as conference chairman to exempt two Alaska air traffic control towers from the rules.

“I agree with the chairman on this. Federal air traffic controllers are better than contract air traffic controllers. That’s why he kept them in Alaska,” quipped John Carr, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Added Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who said he is close to having the 41 votes he needs to filibuster the conference report on the Senate floor: “He knew darn well it wasn’t a good idea [to privatize].”

Lautenberg is working with House Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member James Oberstar (D-Minn.), who hopes to drum up enough votes in the House to send the bill back to conference when it comes before the chamber as early as this week.

Young was not available for comment, but his office released a statement defending his decisions.

“Nothing in the bill specifically states that the 69 eligible FAA towers will be privatized. Each tower will be judged individually,” Young said in the statement. “In regards to the two Alaska exemptions for the contract tower program, there are very real reasons for doing this. Alaska is unique. Due to the critical nature of aviation in Alaska, there are many instances where we’ve been dealt with differently than the ‘Lower 48.’”

Indeed, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), chairman of Commerce’s subcommittee on aviation, said Young’s power as a House chairman as well as the influence of Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who served as a Senate conferee on the FAA bill, often permits their state to receive special treatment.

“In many areas, Alaska gets treated like a separate country, and it looks like it’s happened again this time,” Lott said in an interview.

The Alaska exemption isn’t the central reason the conference report could fail in either or both chambers this month. Lautenberg and Oberstar are chiefly angered because neither chamber included a privatization provision in their version of the bill. In fact, both chambers actually voted overwhelmingly to prohibit any further privatization of air traffic control towers because of concerns for air safety.

Still, Young’s decision to grant his own state a reprieve from any new contract towers has emboldened his opponents and even attracted rebukes from supporters of the provision, who say he has made it harder to sell the bill to wavering members.

“He shouldn’t have done that,” McCain said last week. “I don’t think it was the right thing to do. I wouldn’t have done it.”

McCain noted that he made no effort to protect the five Arizona airports whose air traffic control operations could be contracted out to private businesses as a result of the provision.

Still, Young justified his decision to exempt the Alaska towers, saying in his statement that they “are not conducive to contracting out for unique reasons.” One tower in Juneau, he says, will soon get a radar upgrade that will disqualify it from consideration as a contract tower.

Under the 20-year-old contract tower program, only towers that rely on visual identification of planes, rather than sophisticated radar, can be run by private companies. Currently the FAA pays three companies to run a total of 219 towers that use “visual flight rules.”

Young said the other exempted Alaska tower, known as Merrill Field, is too near the Anchorage International Airport and Elmendorf Air Force Base to make it a likely candidate for the contract tower program.

Opponents, however, have pointed out that the list of 69 towers includes many towers in close proximity to other airports as well as some with very heavy flight traffic — including one in Van Nuys, Calif., that air traffic controllers say is the busiest general aviation airport in the world.

Even with the increased scrutiny of the bill, the flap over the Alaska airport exemptions has not stopped McCain, Lott and other proponents of the overall legislation from trying to move the bill this month.

And they’re actively fighting back against the air traffic controllers union, which has been aggressively lobbying members to vote against the conference report.

“They had better be careful,” Lott said of the union effort. “They’ve got a guy who’s supportive of their position in me, but if they presume or succeed in trying to take this bill down, they will have made a permanent enemy out of me.”

McCain also defended the bill and the privatization initiative, and noted he was optimistic that Republicans in the House and Senate could defeat Oberstar and Lautenberg’s efforts.

“It’s not the end of Western civilization as we know it,” he said. “I think we need to do some education of our colleagues as to its effects.”

But in order for McCain to succeed, he will have to convince lawmakers like Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who was one of 11 Republicans to support Lautenberg’s anti-privatization amendment on the Senate floor.

Inhofe, who has been a licensed pilot for 45 years, said he has been in talks with the White House, the FAA and other Senators to prevent the provision from making it into law.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said.