Air Traffic Controllers' Contract Talks Break Down
Contract talks between the Federal Aviation Administration and the air traffic controllers union collapsed yesterday. The FAA declared the negotiations at an impasse, which allows the agency to turn the dispute over to Congress.
The talks broke down when negotiators were unable to bridge a multimillion-dollar gap in projected cost savings. The FAA proposed nearly $1.9 billion in savings over five years, and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said it could go no higher than $1.4 billion in savings.
Marion C. Blakey , the FAA administrator, said the agency would send its last, best offer to congressional leaders by today. Congress will have 60 calendar days to intervene in the dispute. If Congress takes no action, the FAA will be free to impose the terms of its proposal.
John S. Carr , the union president, said the controllers will file a lawsuit to force the FAA to take the dispute to a federal labor panel that normally handles impasses. The union also will urge Congress to approve legislation that would send deadlocked negotiations to binding arbitration, he said.
The contract talks, which have lasted about nine months, have been especially contentious, with each side accusing the other of spreading false or misleading information. Other negotiations are not going well. Bargaining has come to a halt between the FAA and its second-largest union, the Professional Airways Systems Specialists, who install and maintain air traffic control equipment. The FAA filed an unfair-labor-practice complaint against the union last week.
In all, the two disputed contracts cover about 25,000 FAA employees who play key roles in the operation and safety of the nation's commercial aviation system. The FAA is one of the few places in government where unions can bargain over salaries.
Blakey portrayed the FAA's proposal to controllers as "extremely fair to our current workforce." She said the proposal would not cut salaries of controllers and noted that they would continue to be eligible for locality adjustments and performance-based raises.
The average compensation package -- pay and benefits -- for controllers would rise from about $166,000 annually to $187,000 by the end of the FAA's proposed five-year contract, Blakey said.
The FAA proposal would phase out controller incentive pay, which goes to controllers who take jobs in hard-to-staff facilities, and would abolish controller-in-charge pay, a 10 percent differential for controllers who take on supervisory duties. Blakey said the two pay supplements had not proved to be effective and had been criticized by the Transportation Department inspector general and some members of Congress.
The agency's pay plan, however, would reduce starting salaries for newly hired controllers by 30 percent compared with the current pay scale.
Blakey said the typical controller hired in fiscal 2007 would earn about $84,000 in base pay after five years on the job. Total compensation, including benefits, would average about $127,000, she said.
"This is generous anywhere in this country by standards of the American workforce as a whole, without question," Blakey said of the proposal to lower salaries for new controllers.
More than 70 percent of the FAA's operating costs are made up of employee salary and benefits, and Blakey said the agency needs to lower costs if it is to install new technology and address a projected surge in controller retirements.
By most accounts, the FAA will need to hire and train about 12,500 new controllers through 2014 as controllers hired after the 1981 strike retire and leave the agency.
Carr said the FAA had not engaged in good-faith bargaining. "This FAA administrator does not respect work and does not respect her workforce," Carr said.
He said the agency's pay plan would cut the take-home pay of numerous controllers because of the lost pay differentials and would lower the top of salary scales for the majority of controllers. FAA employees making above scale currently get their annual raises in a bonus rather than as an increase to their base pay.
The union will take its case to the public through an advertising campaign and will lobby Congress for help, Carr said. Asked if the Republican-controlled Congress would oppose the FAA plan, Carr expressed hope, saying that "a lot can happen in 60 days."
Stephen Barr's e-mail address email@example.com.