Air traffic controllers (search) are fighting a bitter battle with the Bush administration over a proposal to privatize some of their jobs.

The union representing 15,600 controllers says the plan to expand a program that contracts with private companies to run control towers at smaller airports is a step toward privatizing air traffic control everywhere.

The Federal Aviation Administration (search) says it has no such plans and only is looking to save money.

The dispute is the most heated since 1981, when President Reagan fired more than 11,000 controllers on grounds they violated a national security provision in their contract by striking.

The FAA in 1982 began contracting air traffic control at about 60 small airports that could not reopen after the strike because of a controller shortage. Now 219 of the 484 public airports in the United States with towers have "contract towers."

The government argues that these towers are cheaper to run and as safe as those operated by government controllers. An agency analysis in May found that it costs an average of $1.34 million to run an FAA-staffed tower, while the average cost for a similar contract tower is $421,000.

"This is another example of the special interests pursuing an agenda of job protection," said Leonardo Alcivar, Transportation Dep (search)artment spokesman.

Higher controller salaries are a major reason for the FAA's rising work force costs, the Transportation Department's inspector general told Congress this year. The average base salary for a controller is $106,000, 47 percent more than the 1998 average of $72,000.

John Carr is the president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (search), which replaced the federal controllers' union decertified after the 1981 strike.

"I view it as standing up for the safety of the system," Carr said.

Contract towers often are run by one person at a time. Carr said that makes that lone controller less accountable because he is unlikely to report mistakes. The FAA counters that even some government-controlled towers are at times staffed by one person.

The controllers say the Bush administration showed its intentions earlier this summer when it threatened to veto a four-year, $60 billion aviation spending bill if it did not include a provision that allows 69 more control towers to be privatized. That could affect more than 900 controller positions.

"They're trying to get away with something here," said Doug Church, spokesman for the controllers' union. "They don't want to let us get out from under this whole agenda to outsource."

Fred Feinstein, a senior fellow at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs, said the dispute is a skirmish in a war over the administration's efforts to privatize government jobs.

"The relationship between labor and this administration is awful," Feinstein said.

Congressional Democrats say they will not approve an aviation spending bill that turns government-run control towers over to the private sector.

"I will look at every option available to prevent the president from attempting to privatize the air traffic control system," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.

The administration questions why the union is fighting now when it allowed 56 towers to be privatized under FAA Administrator Jane Garvey (search), who was appointed by President Clinton. The union points out that it sued the government in the mid-1990s, claiming the conversion of government-run control towers is illegal. The case is in federal court in Ohio.

FAA Administrator Marion Blakey says the spending bill merely preserves the status quo because existing law allows federal controllers to be replaced at 71 more towers.

She has said the FAA has no plans to convert any on the list, which has existed since 1999. Moreover, she said, the spending bill before Congress gives 94 percent of all government air traffic control jobs a protection in the law they did not have previously — guaranteed job security for four years.

Controllers point out their jobs were protected from privatization in 2000 when President Clinton signed an executive order calling air traffic service "an inherently governmental function." Last year, President Bush amended that order by reclassifying the jobs as "commercial, but exempt from competition."

The bill now before Congress includes 69 towers rather than the 71 originally identified. The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Rep Don Young, R-Alaska, removed the two control towers in his state.