Talks between the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and the Federal Aviation Administration remain deadlocked despite a push from the union and a key senator to resume negotiations over a labor contract.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which oversees FAA, said last week that the agency moved too quickly in declaring an impasse and the two sides should come back to the table to find an equitable resolution.
In a letter to FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, Snowe said the process that kicks in once an impasse is declared has not been tested by the court system and a negotiated settlement is truly in the best interest of all parties. That process allows FAA to send a final proposal to Congress, which then has 60 days to act before the agency is legally permitted to impose the offer's conditions.
FAA is proposing an offer that would create $1.9 billion in savings, while the union's final offer provides $1.4 billion.
Spokesman Geoff Basye said that while FAA respects lawmakers' opinions, endeavors to reach a voluntary agreement have been exhausted and the agency is following the process set out by Congress.
NATCA and FAA have been stuck in combative negotiations over benefits and wages since July 2005. FAA is in an unusual position because its labor unions are able to negotiate pay and its controllers are among the highest-paid federal government workers.
The air traffic controllers union declared Tuesday that it accepted the agency's public offer to return to the contract bargaining table after FAA spokesman Greg Martin was quoted on an aviation trade publication's Web site Monday stating FAA would welcome the opportunity to return to the bargaining table.
"We want to continue bargaining with the agency in hopes that both sides can find that elusive common ground," said John Carr, NATCA's president. "FAA wants a voluntary agreement and so do we. The place to find that agreement is at the table, not in the Congress."
But Basye said the aviation publication's story failed to represent the official position of the agency, and added that Carr is "grasping at straws."
Basye said that after nine months at the negotiating table, at a cost of $2.3 million, the air traffic controllers union has not shown a willingness to meet FAA in the middle.
NATCA spokesman Doug Church said conflicting statements from FAA spokesmen on whether the agency is willing to negotiate are another example of its inability to "keep its story straight from one day to the next."
Church said the union is campaigning for citizens to call their senators in support of legislation (S. 2201) that would prohibit FAA from implementing its final contract offer without congressional authorization.
An identical bill has been proposed in the House (H.R. 4755). If the bill clears both law-making bodies and is signed by President Bush by June 5, negotiations would go to binding arbitration should Congress fail to authorize FAA's offer.
Last week, the union unveiled a multimillion-dollar television advertising campaign to build support for the legislation.