Controllers at busiest airports retiring in large numbers

Editor's Note: the following is excerpted from a feature story that will appear in the Aug. 1 issue of Government Executive.

A group of air traffic controllers, hired en bloc in the early 1980s after 11,000 controllers were fired for striking, now is retiring rather than continuing under a new pay scale and work rules imposed by Federal Aviation Administrator Marion Blakey. Their departure is leaving FAA short on capability and expertise just as air traffic is increasing exponentially and a new generation of controllers desperately needs seasoned hands to guide them, a new Government Executive analysis shows.

At first glance, last year's contract talks between FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association foundered on a disagreement over how much a financially strapped agency ought to pay a highly trained and already highly paid segment of its workforce. But when negotiations broke down and Blakey imposed her final contract proposal, a far more significant challenge emerged. The controllers might not have won a ratified contract, but their numbers gave them unexpected power.

Ironically, that power has its roots in the destruction of a controllers union more than two decades ago. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan banned from federal employment all members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization who had gone on strike illegally. Over the next three years, FAA hired 9,000 controllers to replace them.

The new employees progressed up the experience and salary ladders together, putting an unusually large proportion of the workforce at or near the top of the pay scale simultaneously. In the union's most recent contract, which ran from 1998 to 2003 and was extended to 2005, the value of pay and benefits rose more than 75 percent, according to FAA.

"It was a very rich contract," says Blakey. To cut costs, she sought to slow the rate of salary increases dramatically. When negotiations between the agency and NATCA deadlocked in April 2006, FAA was offering a 9.4 percent pay increase over five years. The union wanted 18 percent. After Blakey declared the negotiations at an impasse, she used the authority granted in the 1996 FAA reauthorization to impose her final proposal on the controllers without their agreement.

In addition to slowing the rate of raises, the terms FAA required cut starting salaries from between $38,080 and $53,312 to $31,700 and eliminated incentive pay for controllers who move to more challenging facilities or take on supervisory duties. The agency also instituted new rules to restore managerial control, including a dress code and restrictions on entering and leaving air traffic control facilities. "We were able . . . to reassert our ability as managers, to assert management prerogatives," says former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.

Many longtime controllers found the new regime bewildering and unsettling. Some staged protests against the new work rules, wearing outlandish clothes that were technically permitted under the dress code. Others simply decided to retire as soon as they were eligible. Controllers can retire at age 50 with 20 years of service, or with 25 years of service at any age.

"Controllers have had enough," says Doug Church, NATCA's director of communications. "The work rules are the last straw. Retirement letters are piling up like cordwood." NATCA believes retirements are clustered in facilities that can least afford the losses.

A Government Executive analysis of traffic and staffing statistics provided by FAA and NATCA confirms that assessment.

There are three kinds of air traffic control facilities in the United States: Air route traffic control centers (known as en route centers) handle planes in the middle of their flights; air traffic control towers handle planes as they move on the ground at airports and give pilots directions as they take off and land; and terminal radar approach controls (TRACONs) handle planes as they move into and out of the general vicinity of airports after they take off and before they prepare to land.

At the 10 busiest en route centers in the country, 7 percent to 23 percent of controllers will be eligible to retire by the end of the fiscal year, as will 13 percent to 38 percent of controllers at the 10 busiest towers and 13 percent to 55 percent of controllers at the 10 busiest TRACONs.

Blakey disagrees that the contract she imposed has had any impact on controller retirements. "You've got this bell curve of people reaching a certain age and mustering out that none of us can change," she says. "It's not related to the contract; it's not related to anything."

Not so, according to David A. Dobbs, Transportation Department principal assistant inspector general. "During the first six months of fiscal 2007, FAA's projections were extremely close to the actual number of retirements that occurred," he wrote in a February report (AV-2007-032). "However, beginning in April 2006, actual retirements began exceeding FAA's projections when negotiations between the agency and NATCA over a new collective bargaining agreement reached an impasse. . . . By September, when the FAA began unilaterally implementing its own proposals . . . retirements were nearly three times higher than FAA had projected (97 actual retirements compared to 39 projected). . . . According to FAA and NATCA officials, the large jump in actual retirements was a result of the breakdown in contract talks."

Government Executive's analysis indicated that by the end of February, fiscal 2007 retirements at six of the 10 busiest en route centers, two of the 10 busiest towers and five of the 10 busiest TRACONs already were on pace to exceed fiscal 2006 rates. While data was not immediately available on how many retirement-eligible controllers at each facility would reach mandatory retirement age in fiscal year 2007 or how long those controllers had been eligible to retire, the IG report found that a quarter of controllers retire in their first year of eligibility and 87 percent retire within their first seven years of eligibility. The report also predicted that those rates could rise as FAA begins phasing out the incentive pay that controllers once received for working at more difficult facilities.

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