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FAA Has Some Unhappy Controllers

By Stephen Barr
Monday, April 23, 2007

Trust is a big deal, as we all know.

That's why the Federal Aviation Administration is conducting focus groups with employees across the country to find out why they have a problem with management.

Concern about employee attitudes developed early this year after FAA officials analyzed the results of a workforce survey conducted in August and September. Some of the feedback was pretty bleak.

Only 17 percent of the agency's employees said they "trust FAA management"; 16 percent agreed that "FAA executives are honest when communicating with employees."

The responses were even more troubling in the FAA's Air Traffic Organization -- the controllers, technicians, engineers, and support personnel who keep airplanes flying every day. Only 9.3 percent of the air traffic employees said they trusted FAA management and just 8 percent said they believe that agency executives were honest in how they share information. Controllers, in particular, have been unhappy, even angry, with the agency.

Ventris C. Gibson, the FAA assistant administrator in charge of personnel management, said the employee focus groups will be completed in the next few weeks. Once the comments have been analyzed, the FAA will come up with a plan to more actively engage employees and improve communication.

"We do have some more work to do," Gibson said. "It takes a lot to change and turn an organization and improve it significantly."

Across the FAA, it seems, substantial numbers of employees question whether the agency's leaders have their best interests at heart. A briefing prepared for FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey showed that many employees hold negative perceptions about management.

Sixty-one percent disagreed with the statement that the FAA "is committed to employee concerns," and 68 percent gave negative responses on whether the FAA "takes into account the impact of organizational changes on employees."

Still, most FAA employees are dedicated to their work and their jobs, the survey shows. That's important, because the agency could be headed into turbulent times and needs a workforce that is pulling together.

The busy summer travel season is approaching, a stressful time for air traffic control. The agency is looking for funding to upgrade its air traffic systems to keep pace with the projected growth of air travel. And it needs to hire about 15,000 air traffic controllers over the next 10 years to replace cohorts who came aboard more than two decades ago, after President Ronald Reagan fired about 11,000 controllers who went on strike.

The survey, to some extent, was skewed by the air traffic employees, who were 11,513 of the 18,762 participants in the survey. Controllers, in particular, were much less positive when responding to statements measuring "organizational excellence" than other employees at the FAA.

Some of the controllers' unhappiness goes back to last year's contract dispute. When an agreement could not be reached and when Congress refused to intervene, the FAA imposed a five-year contract that slows the rate of pay increases for current controllers and cuts starting salaries for new hires by 30 percent.

The contract also changed some work rules and included a dress code that bans jeans and T-shirts. A few male controllers protested by showing up for work in dresses.

The controllers also flooded the agency with grievances -- about 286,000 over the last six months, said Joseph N. Miniace, who heads up labor relations for the FAA. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association also has filed unfair labor practice complaints with a federal labor authority.

A 2005 decision by the FAA to outsource general aviation flight services, once performed by about 2,500 agency employees, continues to roil parts of the workforce.

"Any time you have an organization making change like that, you are going to have some reaction from the workforce, obviously," Gibson said.

She stressed that controllers "are a professional workforce" and "very job focused," and that only a small percentage staged protests over the new contract. "We don't have anyone acting out with the dresses anymore," Gibson said.

Patrick Forrey, president of the air traffic controllers' union, said many controllers were incensed that the new contract imposed a dress code and tightened work rules. "They don't feel like they are being treated with respect for the job they do," he said.

While she awaits completion of focus groups, Gibson said the FAA is taking steps to address some employee concerns.

The FAA is changing how it rewards employees for superior work, plans to offer child-care subsidies for employees at air traffic centers and will start a student loan repayment program. Managers will be spending more time talking and listening to front-line employees, she said.

"We are actually seeing a lot more improvement in the working environment," Gibson said.

Stephen Barr's e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.

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