WASHINGTON, D.C. — In the Spring of 2003 the Bush administration announced that it intended to put more than 400,000 federal jobs up for competitive bid. That is, if a job currently being performed by a federal employee could be done as well by the private sector and for less, the work could be bid out to a for-profit or a non-profit firm.

This concept met with opposition, especially as it related to bringing competition to the government’s air traffic control employees, of which there are more than 15,000. Dozens of federal employees work in Michigan’s 11 federal air traffic control towers, which may become subject to competition from private, for-profit firms. The union representing the air traffic controllers maintains that competitively contracting out for their services would jeopardize air safety.

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Not so, reports Ron Utt of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. In his policy paper, "End the Unions’ Costly Monopoly of the Air Traffic Control System," Utt cites an April 2000 report by the Office of the Inspector General (IG) at the U.S. Department of Transportation, which found little difference in the quality or safety of services provided at Level 1 control towers, "… whether they were operated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) or by contractors."

In September of 2003, the IG reported that in fiscal year 2002 Visual Flight Rule (VFR) contract towers had an error rate of 0.49 incidents per million operations, while the 71 FAA-staffed VFR towers recorded 2.70 incidents per million.

It apparently also costs less for private contractors to operate control towers. In October, the Reason Public Policy Institute, a think tank located in Los Angeles, reported that towers staffed by union FAA controllers cost $917,000 more a year to operate, on average, compared to towers operated by private contractors. In fact, Utt concludes that "The government is paying 4.8 times more for FAA-staffed operations that yield 5.5 times more errors in operation."