The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to turn management of the county’s five airports over to a private company for the next 20 years, despite pleas from pilots and county employees not to act hastily.
The 3-2 vote drew a groan from those who had come to the meeting to question the need for privatization, saying they feared it could lead to higher hangar rents and fuel rates.
“A major concern to us is what the new contract is going to cost us,” said Wallace Goltry, a member of the pilots association at Whiteman Airport in Pacoima.
A coalition of pilots associations had asked the supervisors for at least two more months to review the proposal and investigate alternatives. At a board meeting earlier this month, when the supervisors agreed instead to a two-week delay, the coalition presented a petition against privatization signed by 699 people.
But the majority of the supervisors said they could not ignore the profit involved in letting Comarco, an Anaheim-based defense contractor, manage the facilities in Pacoima, Lancaster, El Monte, Compton and La Verne. Under the contract approved Tuesday, the county stands to receive at least $2.8 million annually, about $500,000 more than it now earns operating the airports.
In the board’s traditional liberal-conservative split, Supervisor Ed Edelman--long a critic of privatization largely because of its impact on county workers--joined Supervisor Kenneth Hahn in voting against the contract.
“I can’t see why we are turning over this valuable asset to a private company,” Edelman said, referring to the estimated $2.2 million the county now earns from the airports.
The contract with Comarco is subject to review by the Federal Aviation Administration, because the airports have received federal funds. FAA spokesman Fred O’Donnell said agency attorneys in Los Angeles and Washington are reviewing the contract to ensure that agreements made by the county are followed by Comarco.
In the past, the FAA has not been enthusiastic about moves to privatize public airports and recently squelched a similar plan in Albany, N.Y.
O’Donnell said the agency cannot overturn Tuesday’s vote, but it can require the county to pay back any federal support it has received over the years.
All five of the airports once were under private control but were purchased by the county between 1958 and 1970. Pilots maintain that, with few exceptions, the facilities have improved under county management, and they fear a private company will have to raise fees to maintain the same quality of service.
They accused the county of crippling the airport managers’ ability to do a good job by failing to fill the aviation division chief’s job for the past three years.
“Why are you so unwilling to give the aviation division the autonomy it needs . . . to operate?” asked Frank Kromka, an airport operations worker at El Monte Airport. “Given that, we would do better than any private company.”
Supervisor Mike Antonovich, a strong advocate of privatization, disagreed with the opponents.
“I see this as helping the pilots, helping the airports . . . getting rid of some bureaucracy,” Antonovich said.
Richard Loomis, vice president of Comarco, said the company has no intention of raising fees, because that could drive business away. Instead, he said, new business would be sought, operations would be streamlined, and staffing would be cut by at least 10% through attrition from the current 55 employees.
Under the contract with Comarco, any increases in airport fees, with the exception of fuel rates, are subject to board approval. Fuel prices are dictated by rates charged at other area airports, according to county staff.
“But what is to stop the board from approving all the increases?” asked Goltry, the Whiteman pilot.
Pilots and employees also questioned the competency of Comarco, whose airport experience until now has been limited to management of auxiliary services, such as parking and computer systems. They pointed out that firms with more airport management experience, including Lockheed and Pan Am, were not willing to accept the county’s contract.
Many employees could be displaced by the move. Under the contract, all who have held their jobs for at least three months must be offered jobs with Comarco at their current salaries. The county Department of Public Works has agreed to try to find positions for those who do not opt to work for Comarco. But union officials said the lack of future union representation and the potential loss of benefits would probably prevent many employees from accepting those offers.