Bill Would Keep Grand Forks, N.D. Flight Service Station Open

Congress's only avowed Socialist announced Friday he had introduced a bipartisan bill that would foil the privatization of the nation's flight service stations and keep all of them open, including the one at the Grand Forks International Airport.

The bill would keep them federalized and save 30 jobs at the Grand Forks Flight Service Station and 1,000 nationwide, according to Rep. Bernie Sanders, Vermont's sole House member. Sanders was elected as an Independent and caucuses with the Democrats.

In February, the Bush administration, following through on a privatization plan announced several years ago, awarded Lockheed Martin corporation a $1.9 billion bid to take over the flight service stations from the Federal Aviation Administration. Lockheed said it would close 37 of the nation's 57 flight service stations, including the one at the Grand Forks International Airport.

North Dakota's Rep. Earl Pomeroy is one of 38 Democrat co-sponsors; there also are seven House Republicans signed on to the Federal Aviation Safety Security Act introduced earlier this month, Sanders said in a news release Friday.

Lockheed, in its bid-winning plan, said it would close 37 of the nation's 57 flight service stations between April 2006 and March 2007, including the one at Grand Forks.

Flight service stations are part of the FAA's air traffic control system and focus on briefing pilots on weather conditions and terrain, and they also help in emergency search and rescue efforts. But one pilot told the Herald that new technology makes much of the flight station's mission obsolete and that much of the information dispensed by the flight stations is available to pilots by other means, including the Internet. Lockheed said it can provide the same service using only 20 flight service stations.

The flight service station in Princeton, Minn., near the Twin Cities, would take over the area - the entire state of North Dakota - which now is the bailiwick of the Grand Forks station, Lockheed Martin officials announced.

There has been a flight service station in Grand Forks since the 1940s, when the airport was east of 43rd Street and south of Gateway Drive.

The FAA control tower at the Grand Forks International Airport is a separate facility that monitors air traffic in and around the airport. It and its 19 employees aren't affected by the downsizing of flight service stations.

A companion bill to Sanders' has been introduced in the Senate by U.S. Sens. Tim Johnson, D.-S.D., and John Thune, R-S.D.

The bills would require that flight service air traffic control specialists be federal employees.

Sanders said the post-9/11 security concerns highlight the need to keep the flight station function federalized.

"We should not privatize federal jobs involving public safety to private sector companies involved in operating for profit," Sanders said in his news release. "The public safety of airline passengers should not be put up for sale to the lowest bidder."

Supporters of the Bush administration's downsizing moves point out that much of airline safety, including the airlines themselves, operate as private entities.