The Federal Aviation Administration is pushing hard for a rapid resolution to its air-traffic controller labour union showdown, a significant step for a federal government agency that isn’t always known for moving quickly. After four months of negotiations toward a new contract with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey called for a mediator to step in and resolve issues by Christmas. “They just aren’t moving on the issues at the heart of the negotiations. Our call for mediation is about trying to get a voluntary agreement”.
Blakey said that a 1998 contract signed by her predecessor had raised pay by 74% and that as many as 1,300 of the 15,000 traffic controllers earn more than $200,000 annually. She said that that cutting labour costs is imperative as the agency prepares for a transition to satellite-based navigation at the same time that its revenues, based in large part in ticket taxes, are falling, congressional budgets are crimped, and the agency may soon face an attrition crisis as a wave of controllers who were hired in 1981 soon face mandatory retirement. The FAA hired heavily after President Reagan fired thousands of unionized controllers who went on strike that year. Although this union, a successor to the 1980s labour organisation, cannot legally strike, a work-to-rule campaign could slow air traffic just at reaches pre-2001 peak levels. And workforce cooperation would be essential in a transition to new technology.
But a NATCA official responded that the FAA was attempting to drive the dispute away from a voluntary resolution and into the arms of a Congress that is no friend of labour. Under the law, if either side or a mediator formally declares an impasse in talks, the FAA’s proposal goes to Congress for review. If the lawmakers do not act within 60 days to change it, the FAA can impose its last offer to the controllers as a binding contract. The showdown comes as the FAA girds itself for the rewriting of its basic funding formula in a process known as reauthorisation, a legislative marathon that can take more than a year.
NATCA spokesman Doug Church says, “They’re trying to rush it into Congress, which won’t have time to look at it, and then wrap it up before they get into FAA reauthorisation, which is going to be a bloody battle without the labour issue and even worse with it”. He added, “We don’t know why they’re rushing now because they agreed to a negotiating schedule with talks though February and possibly even into March. And contrary to what they’re saying, our negotiating team has reported fairly good progress so far and in fact were on the way to a session with them when they made their announcement. It’s painstaking but there is progress,” he said. Union documents that Mr. Church made available would seem to support this position.
Although the union and the agency disagree on how much controllers are in fact paid, the FAA wants to freeze base pay for 15,000 controllers while allowing increases based on merit. Controllers proposed a 5.6% annual increase that will cost $2.6 billion over five years, Blakey said. Russell G. Chew, chief operations officer of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organisation, said base salary plus overtime, along with premiums such as locality pay, averages about $128,000 a year. With benefits included, he said, each controller costs the agency roughly $166,000 a year. Controllers must retire at age 59 and get more generous pension benefits than other federal workers.
The union, charged Blakey, had a motive to for delaying tactics: their contract is an “evergreen” in that it stays in force until a new pact is signed-or is imposed after an impasse. Blakey agreed in 2003 to extend this contract for two years.