The Federal Aviation Administration yesterday released an investigative report that attacked its own air traffic controllers at a New York facility and blamed a union for "inefficient and wasteful" scheduling practices and excessive overtime costs.
The 55-page report comes ahead of an expected battle this summer over a new contract for the union, which represents 14,525 air traffic controllers. The current contract, which determines pay, staffing and other work conditions, expires in September. The negotiations over a new agreement come as air traffic is growing rapidly and following an FAA admission that the agency has a serious shortage of new controllers.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association plans to launch an aggressive advertising campaign this summer to portray the federal workers as dutiful public servants who keep the skies safe. Union-sponsored polls have found that many people have a positive view of air traffic controllers, the union's president has said.
The report released yesterday by the FAA paints a far different picture -- at least of the union's presence at the New York facility. The location handles traffic at the region's three major airports and this year has had a large number of operational errors, or incidents in which planes were flying too close together.
The FAA's report, compiled by a 25-member team over 60 days at the site, found that the 225 air traffic controllers at the New York facility spend only 31/2 hours handling aircraft during an eight-hour workday and that the controllers routinely abused sick leave and overtime. The result, the report found, was that 21 controllers earned more than $200,000 last year excluding benefits, and one out of four controllers will earn $200,000 this year. The New York facility spent $4 million on overtime pay last year -- more than double any other comparable facility, the report said.
The report assigned some fault to FAA managers who entered into agreements with the local union years ago that allowed the union to control staffing rules and scheduling. The report also blamed a union culture of "intimidation" and "harassment" under which non-bargaining-unit employees could not be interviewed by FAA investigators without the presence of a union official.
Investigators also found that out of 160 operational errors, 147 were unreported. The FAA said many of them did not pose a serious risk to safety. A majority of "these are akin to driving 26 mph when the posted speed limit is 25 mph," the report said.
John Carr, president of NATCA, disagreed with that characterization yesterday and questioned why the FAA would call it an error if it didn't pose a safety risk. He also said that the FAA was "scapegoating" responsibility by blaming the air traffic controllers for scheduling and overtime problems in New York.
"The lack of management oversight in this report points out the FAA has created this chaos by their own hand," Carr said. "The FAA sets the staffing standard. The FAA mandates its standards for sick leave, for overtime, for pay and compensation."
Carr said the New York facility, like many others across the country, suffers from understaffing and that's what forces controllers to work so much overtime. "The margin of safety is being eroded," he said.