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Privatizing Whitted tower alarms air traffic controllers

A plan to let private companies operate the control tower at Albert Whitted Airport and about 100 other small airports is meeting opposition from air traffic controllers.

The Federal Aviation Administration says it can save more than $20-million a year by letting companies take over the towers. Companies are taking over 24 "low-activity" airports this fall, including one in Panama City, and will operate about 75 more in the next three years.

It's all part of Vice President Al Gore's campaign to "reinvent government" by making agencies more efficient.

Currently, the eight controllers at Albert Whitted and those at other airports are employed by the FAA. Under the plan, the company probably would have fewer controllers and likely would offer lower salaries. The current controllers would be transferred to larger airports or hired by the private company.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association says the FAA is rushing into the plan without studying other ways to save money. The union says that pilots will get worse service from private control towers and that safety might be compromised.

"It's basically a political move," said Mark Germain, the union's representative at Albert Whitted. "The FAA has been told by Al Gore to cut budgets. It's the low guy that's going to get cut."

The plan would affect Albert Whitted in downtown St. Petersburg as well as airports in Gainesville, Fort Myers-Page Field, Jacksonville-Craig Field and Key West. The FAA rates all those airports "Level 1," which means they have control towers but the lightest amount of traffic.

The three companies chosen for the contract _ RVA of Oklahoma City; Midwest ATC of Kansas City, Kan.; and Johnson-Barton of Cape Canaveral _ can operate the towers more efficiently, the FAA said. They will have fewer controllers in each tower and can pay lower salaries.

"The FAA may have 12 people or more (in a tower), but we come in with seven or eight," said Shane Cordes, marketing director at Midwest ATC. "All of our guys have ample experience and are well-qualified to run a Level 1 tower."

It's not clear when the Whitted tower will be converted. The FAA plans to convert about 25 towers per year for the next four years but has not announced which towers will be next.

Controllers at Whitted and the other airports will be offered jobs at busier towers that are not affected by the plan, the FAA said.

The union says the government's estimate for savings might be unrealistic because it does not take into account insurance, training, facilities and equipment. The union also says safety could be compromised because controllers will not have as much oversight from the FAA.

"The FAA controllers are trained very rigorously and very well," said Jeff Beddow, a union spokesman in Washington. "Will these controllers get the same kind of training? We don't know. It's possible that safety might take a hit."