FAA defends final labor contract offer

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration told congressional appropriators Thursday that she plans to implement the agency's final proposal for a new labor contract on June 5. But opposition to a unilaterally imposed contract is mounting.

Testifying before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said since the current contract was implemented in 1998, an imbalance in compensation between union employees and the rest of the agency's workers has cost the agency $1.8 billion.

"FAA has slashed costs wherever possible and slowed the rate of growth of our labor costs through productivity improvements and reducing overhead," Blakey said. "The simple fact of the matter is that we cannot sign a contract the taxpayer cannot afford."

Negotiations between FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association broke down last month after the agency declared that it could not resolve a difference of more than $500 million between the two sides' offers. The agency's best offer involved $1.9 billion in savings while the union's put forth $1.4 billion.

Negotiations over benefits and wages between FAA and NATCA have been combative from the start, in July 2005. FAA is in an unusual position for a federal agency because its labor unions can negotiate pay and its controllers are among the highest-paid federal workers.

On April 5, FAA declared an impasse and sent its final offer to Congress, which under current rules must act by June 5 to stop the offer from being unilaterally imposed.

Blakey said unless Congress decides to act, the agency plans to implement its final proposal, which would result in current employees making an average of $187,000 a year in pay and benefits at the end of the proposed five-year agreement, up from the current $166,000 average.

Legislation introduced earlier this year that would prevent FAA from unilaterally imposing its final offer on the controllers is gaining support in Congress, with more than half of House members, including more than 50 Republicans, supporting that chamber's version (H.R. 4755) introduced by Rep. Sue Kelly, R-N.Y.

In the Senate, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., the third-ranking member of the Republican leadership team, asked Blakey in a May 2 letter to "take all appropriate steps to reach a voluntary agreement" with the controllers' union. Santorum has not, however, signed on as a co-sponsor of the Senate version of the bill (S. 2201). That version, introduced by Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., currently has 38 co-sponsors.

If the bill clears both lawmaking bodies and is signed by President Bush by June 5, negotiations will go to binding arbitration should Congress fail to authorize FAA's offer.

NATCA President John Carr reiterated a standing offer to Blakey to re-open negotiations late last week.

"Congress is hearing the voice of the American people on this critical issue, and their message is loud and clear," Carr said. "It's time for the FAA to get back to the bargaining table."

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said the agency's plan to eliminate incentive pay for controllers working in areas difficult to staff would hurt airports in medium-size towns.

Several lawmakers expressed concern that unilaterally imposing a contract could quicken the anticipated exodus of thousands of air traffic controllers -- hired after more than 10,000 were fired by President Reagan in 1982 for striking -- who are approaching retirement age.

Blakey said FAA's proposal will not affect retirements because the longer controllers stay on the job, the larger their retirement package.

"I was very surprised that the union said that there would be retirements triggered under the current proposal," Blakey said. "Our controllers are very smart …They are going to do the math."

NATCA spokesman Doug Church said FAA's contract offer, if imposed, would "create a financial disincentive" for controllers to stay past their retirement eligibility dates. According to Church, one in four controllers will reach that eligibility date by the end of next year.

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