For the federal community, it's one of the best shows in town.
The stars are Marion C. Blakey, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, and John S. Carr, head of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. They share the stage with a huge cast of supporting players, including 14,000 controllers.
Their script is a contract written in 1998 and extended in 2003. The contract extension has run its course, and Blakey and Carr are at odds over work rules for the next version of the show and how much to pay the cast.
Like many labor-management productions, outside issues weigh on the contract negotiations. They include an airline industry in financial trouble, passengers who balk at higher ticket taxes and a shrinking federal trust fund to support the FAA, where labor costs account for 80 percent of the agency's operating budget.
In June, Blakey called a news conference to say that she views controllers as dedicated professionals but wants to hold the line on labor costs. She contended that the FAA in 1998 "made a bad deal" that, by 2004, had boosted controller pay 68 percent.
The average controller this year will receive $165,000 in salary, premium pay and benefits, she said. About 10 percent of the controller workforce will earn more than $200,000, she said.
The current contract costs too much, Blakey said, and "common sense will tell you that the taxpayer can't afford to take another hit like that again."
The following month, the FAA and NATCA began contract talks. In the talks, the FAA has sought to freeze controller salaries and to set up a lower pay scale for the thousands of future controllers hired to offset retirements. NATCA has called for increases in pay and sick leave and for reducing the workday by one hour.
NATCA, unlike most federal unions, has the right to bargain over pay. Congress gave the green light to pay negotiations in the late 1990s as part of a larger effort to streamline FAA personnel and procurement policies.
In an interview, Carr dismissed Blakey's numbers, contending that controllers are "quite fairly compensated" given the high-stress, technical nature of their work. "I categorically reject that air traffic controllers are overpaid," he said.
"A lot of what she has put forward with respect to pay and [work] schedules and overtime is just hype and propaganda," Carr said. "I mean there is no other way to characterize it."
Blakey is sticking by her numbers. "Facts are stubborn things," she said. "All of the figures that we have put forward in terms of our labor costs are auditable. . . . They are accurate."
The FAA and NATCA come to the contract talks with little apparent trust.
In 2003, NATCA accused the FAA of trying to privatize control towers and tied up a major piece of legislation sought by the agency for months. That was Blakey's first experience with NATCA.
The union's assertion, she said, came "out of left field with no truth to it."
This year, an FAA team sent to the New York terminal radar approach control facility turned up cases of abuse involving work schedules and sick leave that inflated overtime pay. The FAA said the local NATCA union controlled the work schedule that led to the abuse.
Carr denounced the New York probe as "a drive-by shooting" and "really a report of management failure." Blakey said the FAA has taken steps to address union and management problems at the New York tower.
For this round of contract talks, NATCA is on the airwaves, sponsoring an ad campaign trying to raise concerns among travelers that flying isn't safe without the union's controllers.
Given the differences, it appears that the FAA and the union are headed for an impasse at the bargaining table. The FAA probably will turn to Congress to resolve the dispute, while NATCA hopes to take the dispute to a federal labor panel and, if not satisfied, into federal court.
As for Carr and Blakey, it seems unlikely that they will be reading from the same page when the final script gets written.
Carr called Blakey "a very lovely person" but said, "Our relationship has some distance in it."
Blakey said she has met with Carr in the past and might invite him over for a breakfast. But, she stressed, "this isn't about personalities. . . . What really matters is for all of us to stick to the facts and put forth a fair and equitable position in our negotiations."