FAA, controller contract talks stall

 - September 18, 2006, 8:26 AM

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) and the FAA walked away from the bargaining table on April 5, with the agency declaring an impasse and sending the dispute to Congress. A couple of weeks later NATCA’s well oiled publicity machine cranked out a release announcing, “NATCA accepts FAA’s public offer to return to bargaining table,” but an FAA spokesman said that the union was “grasping at straws.”

The talks collapsed early last month over economic proposals. Natca, the union representing 15,000 air traffic controllers, said its proposal would have saved taxpayers $1.4 billion. The FAA said it ended contract negotiations after receiving a “best and final” contract proposal more costly than what the union had indicated the week before.

According to FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, there was too much money–$600 million– that separated the two sides.

The FAA submitted its final proposal along with NATCA’s objections to Congress, which has 60 days to review the proposals. If Congress takes no action, the FAA claims it can unilaterally put its final proposal into effect.

In Fiscal Year 2005, the average controller received a compensation package worth $165,900, including $113,600 in base salary and locality pay, $14,900 in premium pay and $37,400 in benefits. This represents a 75-percent increase since the current contract took effect in 1998, the FAA said.

As a result of that contract, controller compensation is 42-percent higher than that of all other FAA employees, including aviation safety inspectors, airway technicians, test pilots and other professionals. In addition, the escalation in controller compensation has resulted this year in more than 1,600 controllers making more than a member of Congress ($162,100).

More Labor Woes

The FAA is also facing turbulence in its contract talks with the Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS), which represents more than 11,000 FAA and Defense Department employees who install, maintain, support and certify ATC and national-defense equipment; inspect and oversee the commercial and general aviation industries; and help develop flight procedures and perform quality analyses of the aviation systems.

The FAA filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which administers the labor-management relations program for federal employees worldwide. The FAA accused PASS of failing to bargain
in good faith.

After the FAA declared an impasse with NATCA, the union launched a multimillion-dollar tv advertising campaign seeking to build more support for the congressional bills that would stop the FAA from imposing its proposal if Congress doesn’t act by June 5.

In February, nearly two dozen House lawmakers co-sponsored a bill that would prohibit the FAA from unilaterally imposing a contract on its NATCA employees without the consent of Congress. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate the previous month.

The FAA said its proposal preserves the salaries and benefits of all current employees. “We will implement a new air traffic pay plan with salary bands that line up with the rest of the FAA workforce, while keeping existing controllers essentially whole no matter where they fall with respect to the bands,” the agency told Congress.

“Our final offer–indeed every offer we made in negotiations–explicitly ‘grandfathers’ the annual salary (base and locality pay) of every controller to the extent it exceeds the new caps under the revised pay plan.”

Early last month, Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) and Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), senior members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, expressed deep concern that the FAA had declared an impasse.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) also urged the two sides to return to the bargaining table. “I believe the FAA moved too quickly in declaring an impasse in the ongoing negotiations with [NATCA] and sending the matter to Congress,” she said.