Collision Course

FAA and unions deadlock over plan to rein in controller salaries.

The nation's 15,000 air traffic controllers are among the highest paid civil servants, some earning more than the $165,200 brought in by most members of Congress. A campaign to bring down sky-high operating costs has left the Federal Aviation Administration at odds with the controllers' union and the 7,000 unionized workers who maintain and inspect the high-tech tools controllers use.

Contract disputes with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and Professional Airways Systems Specialists have grounded FAA's effort to equalize pay guidelines across the agency, at least temporarily. "What we're trying to do is bring our costs for our workforce in line with other federal salaries," Administrator Marion Blakey has said repeatedly in the past 11 months. "We cannot and will not sign a contract we cannot afford." Her reference is to deadlocked talks with NATCA, but both unions have accused FAA of rushing the bargaining process in order to impose its contract terms on employees. "It was obvious to the PASS negotiating team that the agency intended to drive the negotiations to impasse, where it could follow its preferred approach," said an April 21 statement posted on PASS' Web site.

FAA has a rare privilege among federal agencies. It is one of the few permitted by law to bargain with employees over their compensation. The 1996 Air Traffic Management System Performance Act also designates Congress as the final authority in FAA's labor disputes if contract negotiations reach an impasse.

That happened April 5. After nine months of contentious and sometimes hostile talks, FAA sent its dispute with NATCA to Congress for a resolution. By law, the House and Senate had until June 5 to arbitrate a settlement. After that, FAA can impose a contract-one it says will preserve the salaries of current controllers but save taxpayers almost $1.9 billion over five years by reducing base pay for new hires and eliminating two cash premiums. Even with a mediator's help, the two sides were $600 million apart when the talks broke down. NATCA argued FAA's plan would prompt 4,000 veteran controllers to retire en masse. The union offered $1.4 billion in concessions, but FAA dismissed it as a "status quo" proposal with all the savings loaded into the first years.

Talks with PASS resumed in February after a two-year hiatus for federal court action, and they were just as strained. PASS had sued to force the Federal Service Impasses Panel to intervene in contract negotiations that stalled in 2003. The U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld a ruling in the government's favor. On March 30, PASS President Tom Brantley announced that he was putting FAA's proposal to his union for a vote after two less-than-productive bargaining sessions. The 90-day ratification process precludes an impasse call that could kick off arbitration in Congress. "I am confident that PASS members will vote down the contract offer, which will send PASS and the FAA back to the bargaining table. Hopefully, the FAA will learn a lesson," Brantley said. FAA lodged an unfair labor practice complaint with the Federal Labor Relations Authority in retaliation.

Congress had three choices in early May: It could settle the NATCA dispute, do nothing and let FAA impose its contract, or adopt a pair of bills known as the 2006 FAA Fair Labor Management Dispute Resolution Act. The proposed legislation would bump all disputes into binding arbitration with a third party if Congress failed to act. "To micromanage the FAA . . . is not a good use of Congress' time," said the sponsor of the Senate bill, Barak Obama, D-Ill. But Rep. Joe Knollenberg, R-Mich., chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees FAA, said it would be "irresponsible" for Congress to abdicate its authority.

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