Up in the Air
he Federal Aviation Administration unveiled its personnel and purchasing system reforms on April 1 with all the trappings of reinvention success.
Vice President Al Gore took the stage in the packed FAA auditorium, dropped an old glass vacuum tube in a wastebasket and declared, "Staffing shortages in places like New York and Chicago will become as ob-solete as UNIVAC computers."
FAA Personnel Director Kay Frances Dolan accepted one of Gore's coveted Hammer Awards, raised it over her head in triumph and reveled in the applause of many of the 120 FAA employees who helped shape the reforms. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena explained how the reforms will correct anomalies such as a 28-page job description for an FAA lawyer. Carl Schellenberg, executive director for personnel reform, promised a raft of efficiencies: The agency's personnel staff, he said will be cut in half, time to hire outside applicants will drop from seven months to six weeks, and job descriptions for the 47,000-employee agency will be trimmed from 155,000 to 2,000. FAA Administrator David Hinson said reform will make the FAA "the reference for reinventing government."
Perhaps. But first, the agency has to convince its employees that the reforms are for real, and even more importantly, it must come up with a way to pay for them.
FAA officials were thrilled that the fiscal 1996 Transportation appropriation bill included permission for them to create new personnel and acquisition systems. Existing federal systems have "served government well for a long time," says Dolan. "But I'm convinced with the speed with which change is occurring now and with budget constraints and technology challenges . . . we have to be able to move more quickly, whether we're dealing with payroll costs or getting the people we need."
Born in 1958, the FAA carries the dual burden of ensuring air safety while at the same time promoting the airline industry. The weight of that double duty is increasing annually. The air traffic control system handles more than 220 million flight operations a year. This year an estimated 560 million passengers are expected to fly on U.S. air carriers; the number could grow to 860 million by 2007. Meanwhile, FAA has dropped 5,000 employees-more than 10 percent of its workforce-and $600 million of its budget since 1993. FAA officials warn that congressional budget-balancing plans could leave the agency with a 12 percent funding shortfall by 2002.
With money a continual question, FAA is pursuing a three-pronged strategy. First, it wants to dump archaic personnel rules that agency officials say cause huge premium pay, overtime and moving costs while at the same time preventing proper staffing at the busiest air traffic centers in the country and in critical FAA science and technical positions. Second, the agency wants acquisition reforms it says will trim costs over time by speeding the purchase of equipment that requires less maintenance and fewer operators, reducing payroll costs for technicians and air traffic controllers, the two largest groups in the FAA workforce. FAA has won approval for these two reforms from its congressional appropriators and is pushing hard for a third: financial reform-perhaps even complete freedom from the appropriations process.
Congress let several aviation taxes lapse last year, causing the aviation trust fund (which provides 70 percent of FAA's budget) to lose $15 million a day. FAA wants the taxes restored and has asked for an $8.25 billion budget for fiscal 1997 along with permission to levy $150 million in user fees.
Legislators see the user fee request as the first step toward escaping congressional funding oversight. "Everyone would like to get around the appropriations process," Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., told Hinson at a recent House aviation appropriation subcommittee hearing. But not every agency has the public's fear of flying as its partner in funding and other negotiations. That fear made this year's rash of air traffic equipment snafus national news, and may ultimately force Congress to release its hold on the FAA's purse strings. The House already has passed a measure to make the FAA an independent corporation. The administration and the agency favor a pending Senate bill that would keep the FAA within the government but fund it via user fees.
Fear also is an unseen participant in every negotiation between FAA and its biggest union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. When Americans fly, they want to believe their planes are being handed off from one happy, stress-free controller to the next using fully functional, state-of-the-art equipment. Instead we fly in a scary, contradictory atmosphere in which earnest controllers in shirt-sleeves tell of equipment outages and staffing shortages, while FAA executives in suits confidently assure the public that safety is unaffected. Some sources suggest NATCA won 10 percent raises in Chicago, New York and Oakland, Calif., facilities this year by raising fear in the White House about timely and efficient flights in and out of Chicago during this summer's Democratic convention. "What we said was that the convention is going to cause additional pressure on the system this summer and that makes it tougher," says Mark Scholl, NATCA leader at the Chicago air route traffic control center.
Most of FAA's personnel reforms are directed at controllers, who make up nearly 40 percent of the agency's workforce. Today, FAA's 17,000 controllers are covered by a variety of wage and hour rules that make it difficult for the agency to fully staff facilities in high-cost cities and high-traffic areas. Controllers are on the same General Schedule salary scale whether they work the dizzyingly busy skies over New York and New Jersey or the calmer open spaces of Idaho. For a top-level controller there's little incentive to move to a big city facility where the stress is vastly worse and pay is no better.
Even when controllers are willing to move, the FAA sometimes can't let them because of limits on the pot of money to pay moving costs. The agency estimates each move costs $27,000. One proposed reform would let controllers volunteer to pay for their own moves. Another would save an estimated $5 million a year by setting moving fees on a point system based on distance, family size and the importance of the vacancy to be filled. NATCA favors the fee-based system, says NATCA president Michael McNally, because allowing employees to volunteer to pay moving costs would mean controllers with more money could more easily gain promotions than those with fewer resources.
In time, FAA plans to set up a new pay system based on complexity of work and cost of living, something the union has sought for years, McNally says. The agency has begun phasing out rules requiring FAA to pay extra Sunday pay for an eight-hour shift, only one hour of which was worked on Sunday, and providing night differentials even after controllers swap for day shifts. Savings from ending some overtime and pay differentials will fund this year's 10 percent raises for 2,200 controllers, technicians, managers and others in high-traffic facilities. The extra pay should be some consolation for controllers who say they are trapped in the stressful centers because the FAA won't promote or transfer them for fear of losing their skills and experience. But the pay hikes haven't won NATCA's unqualified support for reform.
The majority of controllers on board today were hired after the 1981 strike. Since controllers are eligible to retire after 20 years, a large proportion will become eligible just after 2000. Hiring reforms will speed the recruitment necessary to begin preparing now for a controller retirement exodus in the coming century, says Dolan. But according to McNally, the FAA is moving far too slowly to plug the hole retirements will leave. He estimates 2,500 controllers could retire now and fully half will become eligible in 2002 and 2003. Controllers, says McNally, are closely watching to see whether Congress will accept the Clinton Administration's budget proposal to increase employees' contributions toward retirement. If it looks like costs will rise, controllers will retire, he says. "There's no pipeline, no continuous flow of hiring," says McNally. "It's been dry the last three to five years. If they don't start hiring by the thousands, they're not going to keep up." Hinson says FAA wants to begin hiring 500 controllers a year in 1997.
NATCA representatives sat on all the employee task forces crafting reform, but the union only grudgingly approves the process. "The jury is still out for us," says McNally. "There's still a lot more detail work that needs to be done," he says. "All the reform initiatives are just working within a bad situation to make it better." McNally says unionists joined the task forces to protect themselves in case Congress failed to restore collective bargaining rights lost when the FAA was exempted from civil service law. "If we did not sit on the task forces and we did not have union rights at the end, we would've been stuck with whatever they came up with," McNally says. Union rights were restored via the continuing resolution signed March 29.
The Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS) union, a smaller group representing technicians trying to keep 1960s and 1970s vintage air traffic control equipment running, also has doubts about reform. Technicians are in short supply because the FAA began cutting back in anticipation of replacing its existing systems via a massive modernization project begun in 1981. Modernization was curtailed by cost overruns and missed deadlines, leaving technicians to scrounge replacement parts to keep old machinery running. Technician ranks were thinned further when more than 600 took buyouts in the last two years. Fully half the remaining technicians are eligible to retire, according to PASS. As a result, FAA has too few technicians to tend all its brittle machinery 24 hours a day and will hire 134 this year, even as it continues contracting out maintenance work. PASS strenuously opposes contracting as overly expensive and dangerous in an air traffic control system that takes years of experience to learn and repair. While reform may help win more pay for technicians, it won't stanch their loss of work to contractors, so PASS remains unenthusiastic.
Managers, too, are unhappy with reform. While union members were placed on reform working groups, the Federal Managers Association was not included, according to FMA's FAA conference president William Pearman. "The future of the FAA is being decided and we're not being heard," Pearman says. Individual managers sat in on reform sessions, he says, but FMA failed to win a seat at the table. As consolation, Pearman says, the FAA gave him a seat on an ongoing productivity working group. Meetings so far have included a brainstorming session on saving money and exhortation for members to view what a disenchanted Pearman terms a "dog and pony show" about how Delta Airlines achieved large cost savings.
Managers complain their power has eroded because of FAA's allegiance to labor-management partnership. "FAA headquarters disfavors facility managers who can't make partnership work. In some areas of the country, when they can't reach an agreement, NATCA threatens to take their ball, go home and not play," Pearman says. NATCA's power is impressive, especially considering it succeeded the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, the union broken after the air-traffic controller's strike of 1981. But NATCA rose like a Phoenix from the failed strike. The union's affiliation with the AFL-CIO and campaign support of Clinton have helped build its strength. So has its documenting and publicizing of frightening equipment failures in the past year. When PR isn't enough, NATCA members take their case to the public directly. Last spring, for example, they fanned out in airports handing airline passengers leaflets headlined, "Are the Skies Safe?"
NATCA's power could prevent FAA from realizing the savings legislators hoped personnel reform would achieve. For example, McNally promises that when FAA moves off the General Schedule no controller will lose money and many will make more than they do now. FAA "couldn't survive the uproar if some were making less," McNally says. "The unions and the agency are in agreement that we want to be paying people fairly and equitably, and we want to have logical systems," Dolan demures.
Some on Capitol Hill expect the FAA will come back in future years requesting large hikes in its operational budget to cover personnel reform and arguing that user fees are the only way to provide the funds. The weight of the union and the agency pushing together, coupled with the pressure to assuage public fears about air safety, may ultimately overpower Republican legislators determined to hold the fiscal line.