Contract talks continue between FAA, controllers

 - September 20, 2006, 10:41 AM

With the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) overseeing contract talks between the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), the often vitriolic rhetoric between the two sides was dialed down several notches last month.

However, before negotiations resumed March 6 under the auspices of the FMCS, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey told the delegates at the agency’s 31st Annual Forecast Conference that the last contract with the union “left the taxpayer with the short straw and a hefty tab to pick up.”

She claimed that what was to have cost $200 million ended up costing $1.2 billion, and she vowed that won’t happen again. “We cannot and will not sign a contract that we cannot afford,” Blakey said. “Salary increases of 75 percent for our controllers are a thing of the past.”

NATCA countered that in testimony before the House Appropriations transportation-treasury sub-committee on March 7, the Administrator “repeatedly misled on air traffic controller salaries while paying scant attention to the two biggest issues facing the U.S. air traffic system–technological modernization and staffing.”

According to NATCA, in the past Blakey has used figures ranging from $104,000 to more than $200,000 to represent the annual salaries of some controllers. “For the last few months, [Blakey] has been constantly upping the fictitious salaries she claims air traffic controllers make,” said NATCA president John Carr. “I’m sure America’s air traffic controllers will be delighted to learn their erroneously large salaries just got a big erroneous raise.”

The starting salary for a controller is $60,000, and the average controller salary is $118,000. However, the FAA’s Management Advisory Council said the agency now has controllers who make well over $200,000 per year in base pay, locality pay and premiums, and that does not include benefits. Currently, labor costs account for about 75 percent of the FAA’s operating budget, and NATCA is its largest union, representing more than 15,000 employees.

NATCA negotiated its only contract in 1998 with then-FAA Administrator Jane Garvey. Although the contract was to expire after five years, Blakey agreed to a two-year extension in December 2003.

Although that extension expired last September 30, it contained a clause that allows its terms to remain in place as long as talks continue. The FAA began contract negotiations with the union last July. Blakey called for mediation in November, but NATCA did not agree until late February.

If either side declares an impasse, the matter will be referred to Congress. If Congress makes no changes within 60 days, the FAA’s last proposal would take effect.

But in February, nearly two dozen House lawmakers co-sponsored a bill that would deny the FAA any ability to unilaterally impose a contract on its employees without the consent of Congress. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate in January.

Under the two bills, if using the FMCS does not result in an agreement, the FAA can send its contract offer to Congress, along with the union’s objections to the disputed portions of the offer. The agency could not implement the offer unless a bill is enacted into law that specifically approves the offer.

If a bill is not enacted within 60 days of Congress’s receiving the FAA’s offer, the agency and the union must take their dispute to binding arbitration.