The Federal Aviation Administration began contract talks with air traffic controllers Tuesday in a contentious fight over salaries and hiring rates, among other issues.
The controllers are being represented by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association in a negotiation to update the current contract, which was signed in 1998 and extended in 2003.
FAA administrators say labor costs account for 80 percent of their operating budget, which they are trying to reduce as the aviation industry declines. Air traffic controllers are among the highest paid workers in the government, earning two and a half times the salaries of other FAA union workers, the administration says.
Agency negotiators also argue that while the overall number of controllers has remained flat, compensation grew from $1.4 billion in 1998 to $2.4 billion today. They said average controller salary for 2005 will be $165,000.
NATCA leaders say those figures are distorted.
"The salary figures being bandied about by the FAA are simply inflated by using standard federal benefits" like health care and retirement savings as part of the figure, NATCA President John Carr said. Carr added that the salaries compensate for controllers' "high stress" and the shorter career span because of it.
Carr also argued that the salaries include overtime, which is high because the FAA "has failed to hire and train controllers in order to meet the needs of our ever more crowded skies."
Also at issue is the union's alleged control over schedules and staffing levels. FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said in a speech July 13 that the current agreement "contains all sorts of restrictions on the FAA that no employer would agree to in any sensible business arrangement, provisions that give the union de facto control" over these decisions.
Carr defies Blakey's assertion.
"That information is just patently false," Carr said. He said the current agreement "does not contain any" provisions that give the union control over schedules or staffing levels.
Blakey also said in her speech that "the prior administration made a bad deal in 1998" which "tied the FAA's hands."
Carr, however, said the 2003 extension, which was negotiated under Blakey's administration, made "this in every sense of the word her contract."
FAA spokesman Greg Martin said Blakey was new to the administrator's post in 2003 and didn't have the analytical systems in place to study the contract.
"Before having any data or analysis, we thought it was only fair" to extend the contract, Martin said.
Air traffic controllers have a history of tough contract negotiations. In 1981, then-President Ronald Reagan fired more than 10,000 controllers who went on strike after unsuccessful negotiations.
Carr said "the men and women I represent are dedicated public servants and they would never even consider undertaking the kind of action that was undertaken in 1981."
The contract expires in September. After the initial proposals were exchanged Tuesday, the two sides entered a questions and clarification period that will end on Friday. After further consideration, the FAA and NATCA will resume negotiations at an undisclosed date.