DOT watchdog criticizes high pay for air traffic controllers

 - February 4, 2008, 6:10 AM

With the major airlines toppling in all directions, and the opportunities there for young pilots diminishing rapidly, maybe thinking about a different career in aviation might be beneficial. If so, becoming an FAA air traffic controller could be worth investigating. Compared with wage scales young pilots may be more familiar with, controller pay is pretty attractive.

In February testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, DOT Inspector General Kenneth Mead reported that last year more than 1,000 FAA air traffic controllers (approximately 6.7 percent of the present controller workforce) earned $150,000+, with the 10 highest paid earning between $192,000 and $214,000. This was a major increase over 2000, when only 65 controllers exceeded $150,000.

Of course, these were the top earners and, while not disputing Mead’s figures, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) was quick to point out that up to 30 percent of their pay resulted from overtime, forced upon controllers by the FAA’s failure to adequately staff the ATC system. But Mead also stated that, based on FAA data, the average base pay this year for a fully certified controller is $106,580, to which can be added overtime and a variety of special bonuses.

Mead was not, however, extolling the benefits of an ATC career for Senate committee members. Quite the reverse, in fact. Mead was giving the committee his state of the FAA testimony, to demonstrate that agency spending was getting out of hand, particularly on personnel, the largest part of the agency’s operating budget. And he used air traffic controllers as his example because their pay increases were significantly higher than these awarded to other FAA workers, and because they also benefited from a large number of special bonuses, under the provisions of what are called memorandums of understanding (MOUs).

These MOUs are legal agreements between the FAA and NATCA covering specific work issues, such as the introduction of new equipment, larger facilities, reassignments and duty hours, that have arisen since the two parties signed their collective-bargaining agreement in 1998. MOU applicability can range from a single ATC facility to nationwide understandings but, judging by some of the MOUs cited by Mead, NATCA has some talented negotiators when it comes to defining MOU terms.

For example, like many organizations, the FAA pays its employees “locality” bonuses when they work in parts of the country with recognized higher living costs. But at 111 of such locations, NATCA members receive “controller incentive pay” MOU bonuses of between 1 and 10 percent of their base pay, on top of the FAA locality allowance. Under another MOU, controllers transferring to larger facilities begin earning the higher salaries associated with their new positions well in advance of their actual transfer. At one location, controllers received these higher salaries for a full year before moving to their new positions, causing their pay almost to double in some cases, even though they remained in their old jobs. And some MOUs seem to totally defy logic. In one case, after the FAA introduced a labor distribution and employee productivity system to track the hours worked by controllers, the FAA signed an MOU with NATCA that relieved controllers of the need to sign in and out.

Yet to describe NATCA’s negotiators as “talented” is maybe going overboard. It might be fairer to describe their FAA counterparts across the bargaining table as simply less talented. Mead pointed out that while FAA managers had broad authority to negotiate MOUs and commit the agency, they had no standard guidance for negotiating, implementing or signing MOUs, and they had no requirement to include labor-relations specialists in their negotiations. Furthermore, there was no FAA requirement for managers to estimate any potential cost effects before signing the MOU. One can hardly blame NATCA, therefore, for negotiating the best possible deals for its members.

Just how may MOUs are currently in place? The FAA simply doesn’t know and could only estimate that there were “between 1,000 and 1,500,” according to Mead. What are their total cost implications for the agency? Again, the FAA doesn’t know. Will all this change under new Administrator Marion Blakey? That remains to be seen, although Mead told the Senate Committee that “we are working with the Administrator and her staff to address this issue.”

Meanwhile, those looking vainly for light at the end of the pilot employment tunnel might consider a career at the other end of the VHF channels. Generally, qualifications include reasonable health, spatial cognitive skills, self-confidence and the ability to make good decisions quickly. (Controller applicants also must be under the age of 32.) Pilot experience is a plus, but not a requirement.

And over the next five years, it is estimated that as many as a third of today's 15,000 controllers in the U.S. will retire, and a full half of them could be gone by 2007. So the job opportunities should soon materialize. It may never beat flying but, as Mead made clear, there are compensations.