The talk got a little tougher yesterday in the long-running drama featuring the Federal Aviation Administration and the union that represents nearly 15,000 air traffic controllers.

Marion C. Blakey, the FAA administrator, described the bargaining stance of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association as "out of touch" with fiscal reality. She called for government mediators to join the negotiating table and help both sides reach a voluntary agreement.

The NATCA deemed Blakey's call for federal mediation "a publicity stunt." Ruth Marlin, the union's executive vice president, said that the agency and union are making progress on a new contract and that "we're not at a point where mediation is appropriate."

Marlin's comments appeared to rule out any intervention by mediators because the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service does not weigh in on contract disputes unless both parties consent to the presence of a mediator.

The FAA and NATCA have been jousting over terms of a new contract since 2003, when they agreed to extend most of the terms of a 1998 contract that Blakey has called "a bad deal."

Formal talks on the contract began in July, and Blakey wants to wrap up negotiations by Dec. 25. Yesterday, Marlin cast doubt on a deal being reached by late December, noting that the agency and union have agreed to meet through February and perhaps into March.

The FAA is one of the rare places in government where unions can bargain over pay. According to a Transportation Department inspector general's report, the annual base salary for a certified air traffic controller can range from $64,273 to $139,630.

Yesterday, Russell Chew, the FAA's chief operating officer, said average controller pay is $128,000 a year. When pension, health and other benefits are added, the average annual compensation for controllers reaches $166,000, he said.

Chew said the union's contract proposal would put the average compensation package for controllers in excess of $200,000 within four years, an amount Blakey said the agency could not afford. The union proposal would add $2.6 billion to the FAA payroll, which Blakey said would jeopardize hiring goals aimed at offsetting a projected surge in controller retirements. Labor costs account for about 80 percent of the FAA's operating budget.

The FAA will not ask controllers to take a cut in their base pay but has proposed a partial freeze on salaries, officials said. Controllers would continue to be eligible for merit raises and some would get pay raises if they were below scale, but many would no longer receive the government-wide increase approved by Congress.

In addition, the FAA would set up a pay scale for new hires that would provide salaries more in line with those of other agency employees and more closely pegged to civil service pay rates, Blakey said. Controller compensation, on average, is 42 percent higher than the pay and benefits provided to other FAA employees, according to a chart shown at yesterday's briefing.

Marlin disputed the FAA's salary calculations, saying the union is not trying to negotiate a specific pay raise but is seeking to maintain current pay practices, including a link to the annual raise approved by Congress. She said that "we have had very little discussion at the table on pay" but noted that the talks have made substantial progress in other areas.

The agency's pay plan, Marlin said, would create a lower pay scale for controllers, putting a large percentage of controllers over the top of the scale. That would make them ineligible for annual raises approved by Congress, she said.

If the union and the FAA cannot address pay and other key issues in negotiations, the FAA seems likely to declare an impasse. The dispute then could be sent to Congress, and the FAA could impose its last offer if Congress failed to act within 60 days of receiving the case.

Marlin said the FAA's call for mediation was designed to push the negotiations into an impasse and "speed up the process of getting to Congress."

"People need time to meet and talk," she said. "This is how negotiations go."

Diary Live

Laura J. Lawrence, an Office of Personnel Management expert on flexible spending accounts for federal employees, will take questions and comments about FSAs at noon tomorrow on Federal Diary Live at www.washingtonpost.com. Please join us.

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