Landing a Better Deal

The air traffic controllers union is hoping the Democratic Congress will help overturn an unpopular contract.

The Democratic takeover of Congress, and the impending reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration, could give the National Air Traffic Controllers Association a chance to overturn a contract and work rules that FAA imposed on the union in September 2006.

The new policies are hugely unpopular with NATCA members, who believe that pay cuts in the contract will hurt recruiting efforts and that a stringent dress code and restrictions on breaks will encourage large numbers of controllers to retire early, placing a dangerous strain on the system.

NATCA president Patrick Forrey, who took the reins just as FAA unilaterally imposed the contract, hopes to take advantage of the turnover in Congress to revise the process that allowed FAA to enforce the pact.

When Forrey was elected in July 2006, his promise of a new tone seemed to resonate both with his members and with the Federal Aviation Administration. John Carr, the two-term incumbent Forrey replaced, was a famously tough critic of FAA in general, and of Marion C. Blakey's tenure as agency chief in particular.

"I employed and ran on my belief that the FAA requires a hammer and a bouquet of roses," Carr says. During his tenure, he insisted that Blakey focused on cost cutting to the detriment of safety-requiring controllers to stay longer at their stations, putting fewer controllers on each shift and reducing their input in the development of technologies.

Carr's approach won him a reputation as a whistleblower. After an August 2006 plane crash in Kentucky killed 49 people, aviation consultant Michael Boyd told the Lexington Herald-Leader that he'd come to view NATCA as more credible than FAA. "You're dealing with a labor union. They're not pure as snow either," he said. "But if you look at the track record, I'll take the controller union's word long before I take the FAA's."

But Carr's strategy gained him no friends among agency managers. He acknowledges that his aggressive stance might have made it easier for the agency to break off negotiations and impose the contract that led to his ouster. "There was a very clear drumbeat, 'No contract, no Carr,' " he says. "Our members went to their mailbox, and they said, 'Maybe if [we] put a nice guy in, they'll be nice to us.' "

Carr's former colleagues in NATCA's Washington office praised his dynamism, but most agreed with his characterization of Forrey as a nicer guy. "Pat has a different tone and style," says Doug Church, NATCA's communications director, "more low-key, behind the scenes rather than trading press releases."

So far, the change in leadership has not persuaded FAA leaders to back off from the new contract or from their right to impose it, though Forrey describes the conversations between the union and the agency as generally positive.

Under the 1996 FAA reauthorization, unless Congress steps in within 60 days after negotiations between the agency and the union break down, FAA can adopt its own proposal without NATCA's approval. NATCA has long contended that the provision never was meant to be permanent. Union officials hope Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., the new chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, will be more sympathetic to their argument than his predecessor, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla.

Forrey is not abandoning all of Carr's tactics in gearing up for the fight. The new work rules, which have sparked grass-roots protests by controllers who charge that they are restrictive and distracting, are a favorite Forrey target. "That's the kind of stupid stuff that hurts the agency," he says. "It's giving me ammunition to show how idiotic, how unfair, how egregious things are in the field."

Forrey might need all the ammunition he can get to change the focus of the debate. "The FAA did a good job of going to the Hill and saying controllers make a trillion dollars," says Ken Montoya, NATCA's legislative director.

Because FAA hired many of its current controllers in the few years after President Reagan fired their predecessors in 1981, most are now at or near the top of the General Schedule pay scale. Though new employees no longer are in the GS system, the agency has used the size of the current payroll to justify lower starting salaries for new controllers and to require those who transfer to other facilities to take substantial pay cuts.

As Forrey works to resolve these issues with FAA, he is relying on bouquets of roses-at least for now. But he shares Carr's negative assessment of FAA's priorities. "Safety, system infrastructure, economy and security-those things should be what's most important about our air traffic system," Forrey says, "not whether you can make a buck on it."

Alyssa Rosenberg is the fact checker for National Journal magazine.

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