Flight service employees file age discrimination suit

By Amelia Gruber

March 31, 2005

Nearly 800 flight service specialists on Thursday filed an age discrimination lawsuit in federal court in an attempt to stop the Federal Aviation Administration from contracting out their jobs.

The class action lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by attorneys from the firm Gebhardt & Associates on behalf of 794 federal employees. It alleges that age was a major factor in the FAA's decision to hold a public-private competition for roughly 2,500 flight services jobs and award the work to Lockheed Martin Corp. The 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits such treatment, said Joseph Gebhardt, the lead attorney for the specialists.

The transfer of work to Lockheed on Oct. 1 will mean that older workers close to retirement, but not yet eligible, will see significant reductions in government pension benefits unless they are able to find another federal job, the complaint states. Members of the class action suit are seeking relief from any harm the decision has caused them, including back pay, record correction and attorney fees.

About 1,900 of the affected employees worked directly in flight service controller positions, providing weather briefings, navigational assistance and information on flight restrictions, primarily to pilots of noncommercial aircraft, according to the attorneys for the federal employees. There were about 600 other flight service positions encompassed in the contest for work at 58 flight service stations across the country.

Of the roughly 1,900 employees the complaint defines as "flight service controllers," 92 percent were older than 40 at the time the FAA decided to outsource the work, Gebhardt said. In materials posted on the Internet at the time of the decision and in prior public appearances, FAA officials cited the aging flight service specialist workforce as one of the reasons the jobs made good candidates for a competitive sourcing study, the specialists' legal team alleged.

"There is no reasonable factor other than the age of the workforce that is motivating this contracting-out decision," the complaint states.

But Greg Martin, a spokesman for FAA, said the public-private contest was only about one thing: providing "better service at a better value." Much of the equipment used at the flight services stations was antiquated and in need of repair. At a price tag of more than $500 million a year, the service was also too costly for taxpayers, he said. The FAA has said awarding Lockheed Martin the $1.9-billion, 10-year contract will save more than $2 billion over that time.

Martin noted that more than half of the 2,500 flight service specialists involved in the competition were eligible to retire on Feb. 1, the date of the decision.

Members of the class action lawsuit also claim a contractor would not provide the same quality of service as the federal employees. Within the next month, they will seek an injunction to prevent the FAA from handing over work to Lockheed until the age discrimination case is decided, Gebhardt said.

"Once the [federal flight service specialists] are gone, they're gone," said Kate Breen, president of the National Association of Air Traffic Specialists, the union representing the employees.

The federal employees' case will be bolstered by a Wednesday Supreme Court ruling that supports the filing of age discrimination cases in instances where older employees are disproportionately harmed by a workplace action. The previous threshold for proving age discrimination required lawyers to show intent.

Gebhardt said he thinks he could have shown intent in the FAA case, but noted that he also has a solid argument for disproportionate impact.

By Amelia Gruber

March 31, 2005