Unless you have a workable Superman suit, don't head for the airport, on June 22 without some sandwiches, several books, perhaps a sleeping bag and whatever else necessary to make yourself comfy. There is a good chance you won't get off the ground for awhile.
That's because the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) is talking strike.
Union president Bob Poli says his 15,000 members (out of 17,000 controllers) aren't kidding. Popli says nobody but the birds will be flying two weeks from today unless the administration gives a positive sign that it is willing to talk turkey -- and money. Before midnight June 21.
PATCO, which federal officials say is capable of shutting down most flights in the United States, wants the Federal Aviation Adminstration to endorse legislation pending in Congress that would:
Give every controller an immediate $10,000 pay raise. (The union says the typical controller now gets $32,000 in straight salary.)
Give every controller a cost-of-living raise every six months.
PATCO is seeking a contract with the FAA. The last contract expired in mid-March. PATCO says the morning shift of controllers won't report for duty June 22 unless positive signals have been sent out that the controllers are going to get promises of better pay, shorter hours, and improved retirement. The bill being used as a bargaining chip is sponsored by Rep. Bill Clay (D-Mo.) and Sen. Charles Mathias (R-Md.). FAA says it would cost $1.1 billion the first year, PATCO estimates $1.7 billion for three years.
Unions typically talk tough -- but FAA and the airline industry, which takes in $100 million daily, believe this a lot more than bargaining rhetoric.
Despite a 1955 law that makes it a firing offense, (and a $1,000 fine and/or a year and a day in jail) for feds who even talk about striking, the FAA has drawn up contingency plans to attempt to operate the nation's air traffic system using fewer than 1,000 supervisory people to act as controllers. tFAA says that in the "worst picture" scenario with all 15,000 PATCO people on strike, it could probably handle up to 25 percent of normal air traffic.
FAA's contingency plans gives first priority for flights to national defense, then medical emergencies, presidential flights, FAA personnel, scheduled flights of over 500 miles, short-haul flights, and private aircraft, in that order.
PATCO, complaining that FAA wasn't talking seriously, walked out of contract talks on April 28. FAA's new administrator, J. Lynn Helms, has only been in the driver's seat for a month and already it is getting hot. He's the former president and board chairman of Piper Aircraft, so he knows a bit about flying, management, unions and the like.He isn't saying anything just now, which is an irritant to column writers but probably is smart from his point of view. To complicate matters further -- and this one needs no further complications -- PATCO supposedly stands tall with the Reagan administration since it is one of the few unions that endorsed Ronald Reagan when it mattered, before the election.
PATCO is under an injunction (enforced in mid-1978 by Judge Thomas C. Platt of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York) not to strike or slow down. Platt fined PATCO $10,000 for an alleged four-day slowdown earlier that year. The Air Transport Association asked for the injunction, and PATCOgoes back to court -- same court, same judge -- the Friday. It hopes the injunction will be lifted. ATA and others hope not, to put it mildly. They believe the threat of massive financial penalties will keep PATCO troops at their radar screens and off the picket line.
Poli said yesterday that "no matter what happens in New York, PATCO views the injunction as being invalid. In other words, we will go forward with out plan, which is to strike if necessary."