Natca president searches for consensus with FAA

 - March 28, 2007, 6:44 AM

Unilaterally imposed work rules and the FAA reauthorization process are among the issues Pat Forrey, new president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca), plans to address during his first year in office. Forrey took over the association’s reins in September after he defeated two-term incumbent John Carr.
A union representative since 1989, Forrey ran for office because he was dissatisfied with the direction the union was going.

One of his biggest challenges is reaching some agreement with the FAA about controller contracts. “I’m still in discussions [with the FAA] on imposed work rules and pay system,” said Forrey. “My statement to the Administrator has always been ‘I need a ratifiable agreement.’ And of course her position is ‘that horse has already left the barn.’”

The FAA declared an impasse last April 5 after nine months of negotiations with the union that the agency claimed cost the taxpayers $2.3 million. As provided by current federal law, the FAA then submitted its final proposal along with Natca’s objections to Congress, which had 60 days to take action. When legislators failed to do so, Blakey unilaterally imposed the FAA’s final proposal on June 5.

“If there are ways to
improve on what they have implemented and imposed, if we can find something that works mutually for us, we’ll talk about it,” Forrey explained. “And so we’ve been talking.”

He called the unratified contract a big impediment to the future. “We’ve got to resolve this imposed issue,” he said. “We can’t live with an imposed contract; it’s got to be something that we agreed to.”

Forrey conceded that talking might not get the job done and that the union might have to enlist the aid of Congress. The initial goal is to have Congress change
the law that allowed Blakey to impose the work rules in the first place.

“I think with the change in leadership [in Congress], they’re concerned and receptive to fair bargaining provisions under law,” he said.

Controller Exodus
Nonetheless, Forrey emphasized the importance of the union working with the FAA. He said, “We still have to work with them. They are our employer, and we do need to work with them on areas where we can and try and resolve this greater issue.”
Unlike the previous Natca administration, which withdrew its representative on the Joint Planning and Development Organization (JPDO) that is working on the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NGATS), Forrey has gotten reinvolved in the Air Traffic Management Advisory Committee. “I want to put someone on the JPDO and I’ve agreed to participate in the NGATS Institute as well,” he said.

“There was a policy decision made by the last Natca administration, and actually the board voted on it, to pull all of our participation on all technology issues and stuff like that, which I disagreed with and still do,” he added.

Forrey argued that the work rules the FAA imposed are going to affect controllers in regard to impending retirements, causing a shortage of controllers. “I think when the dust settles…the agency is going to realize that it lost a whole lot more than it thought it was going to lose to retirement,” he predicted. Perhaps Forrey’s prediction was correct: the FAA’s updated Air Traffic Control Workforce Plan specifies the need for 15,000 new controllers over the next decade, up from earlier plans for 12,500 new controllers over a similar period.

The Natca chief attributes part of the impetus for veteran controllers to leave to the imposed work rules, combined with the fact they “are not going to get any more pay raises or the fact that they have to live under an archaic, totalitarian type of atmosphere [that] is just not conducive to their psyches. They choose to retire if they’re eligible and that’s what they’re doing.”

Forrey acknowledged that the FAA can hire a new person for every controller who retires. The problem, he said, is that it will take two years–and longer than that at busy facilities–to train the new hire adequately.

“You’re looking at two to four years before they are ever any good to you,” he said. “So what do you do in the meantime? You lose 4,000 people over the course of two years and you’ve got maybe 500 eligible now to work, while the other 4,000 that you hired are somewhere way back in their training; they’re not even ready to work at the level that the [certified professional controllers] or the journeymen were working.”

Forrey will also be eyeing the FAA reauthorization process, which he described as a big piece of what the future is going to look like for the aviation system and the FAA.
“The consolidation and co-location of facilities is hot and needs to get addressed,” said Forrey. “That is another issue we’re going to be working on with the agency and with Congress, to try and make sense out of the system over the next 20 years.”

He said that Natca’s long-term goals revolve around what the union is about–job security, pay benefits, ATC modernization and system safety. “All of our goals are designed to achieve that end,” he added.