New FAA Administrator Marion Blakey apparently wants to continue the cooperative relationship with the nation’s air traffic controllers that was fostered by her predecessor.
Despite some turbulence over whether or not the Bush Administration plans some sort of privatization of the ATC system, the FAA has agreed to a two-year extension of its contract with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca). The existing five-year contract with the union, signed by former FAA Administrator Jane Garvey in 1998, now will run until 2005.
While Blakey cautioned that more discussion is still required on the substantive issues of implementation and staffing, she said the tentative agreement does not make additional demands on the agency’s budget beyond expected federal government-wide cost-of-living pay increases.
“This tentative agreement demonstrates a desire by both parties to devote our energy and focus to our safety mission,” said Blakey. “I want to acknowledge a shared commitment between the FAA and Natca toward the agency’s fundamental mission to maintain and enhance the safety and efficiency of America’s skies during a critical time for the aviation industry.”
Natca president John Carr expressed strong support for the deal, described as
“an agreement in principle,” and he praised Blakey for her commitment to ensuring “the continued positive relationship” between the FAA and the union.
Said Carr, “With the enormous amount of work we are doing with the FAA on a wide array of subjects, from modernizing the National Airspace System, to redesigning the airspace, to enhancing the safety of air travel in the skies and on the runways and taxiways, it was vitally important to us to resolve the issue of our collective-bargaining agreement as efficiently as possible.”
According to Carr, he and Blakey also agreed on the need for a new staffing agreement to coincide with the extension. The current agreement raised the minimum number of controllers working the system to 15,606, a number that Natca and the General Accounting Office (GAO) believe will not adequately meet the future demands of the system.
“We will be working on a new staffing agreement as the new year unfolds,” he added. “Staffing is one of our most pressing concerns. No only do we need more controllers, we need to hire replacements for the 5,000 controllers the GAO says will be eligible to retire within the next five years.”
Before the signing of the contract in 1998, the relationship between Natca and the FAA was often one of contention. Controllers were frequently at odds with the agency over staffing, outdated equipment and what they said was the FAA’s failure to include them in the loop when new equipment was being designed and installed. They frequently went public with charges of unsafe practices.
As recently as five days before Christmas, the controllers conducted an “information campaign” at more than 75 airports around the U.S. about the “dangers of the Bush Administration’s intent to sell off air traffic control to the lowest bidder.” Earlier in December, the White House reclassified the jobs of controllers as “commercial” rather than “inherently governmental,” a move Natca claimed was being driven by the Office of Management and Budget.
At a leafleting campaign at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Pete West, NBAA senior v-p of government and public affairs, said, “Recent proposals for ‘privatizing’ the ATC system would shift significant power to certain user groups, to the detriment of those with less representation on relevant governing bodies.” He contended there is also the potential for raising safety concerns by creating separate entities with conflicting missions.
Blakey took some of the steam out of the leafleting when she sent a letter to all controllers, in which she claimed that ATC was declared a commercial function because the criteria for “inherently governmental” are too strict to include it.
Pointing out that Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta had declared ATC a “core capability” for the FAA, she stressed, “Based on the Secretary’s determination, these functions are not subject to competition and will not be contracted out.”
Natca itself quoted Blakey as saying, ”I feel it [privatization] is an old discussion that has no momentum at this moment.” That was based, she said, on her dialogue with congressional leaders during her confirmation process.
Nevertheless, Natca vice president Ruth Marlin said, “We’re pleased this is the Administrator’s position, but we know the [Bush Administration] above the FAA Administrator clearly has another agenda.”