Panel orders FAA to set new controller pay scales

An air traffic controller watches planes at Newark Liberty International Airport. An air traffic controller watches planes at Newark Liberty International Airport. Mel Evans/AP
Almost three years after the Federal Aviation Administration imposed pay and work rules on air traffic controllers, a mediation panel has issued a decision that paves the way for a new contract to be ratified by members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. The Aug. 6 decision, obtained on Thursday by Government Executive, included a sharp rebuke to former FAA leadership.

The pay provisions instituted in 2006 by FAA's then administrator, Marion Blakey, after negotiations between the agency and NATCA broke down, "constituted unprecedented draconian reductions in compensation, bordering on the unconscionable," the mediation panel wrote in its decision. (A full list of documents appears here.) "The abrupt imposed changes in working conditions … was so profound, and spawned so much hostility and distrust, that the labor-management relationship since has degenerated into a state of dysfunctionality."

Blakey, now president of the Aerospace Industries Association, declined to respond to the panel's criticism.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood appointed the mediation panel in May to help FAA and NATCA resolve differences they were unable to settle themselves as they reopened contract talks. While the last attempt at negotiations ended in an impasse in 2006, the agency and the union agreed on 120 of 130 subjects of negotiation this year. Those agreements form a new contract.

The three-member panel's ruling addressed the 10 subjects on which the agency and union could not agree, including pay and leave. Panel members were FAA Administrator Jane Garvey and attorneys Richard Bloch and Dana Edward Eischen.

The mediators ruled that by Jan. 1, 2010, FAA must establish new paybands for air traffic controllers that set the lowest salary for a fully qualified controller at $40,869, and the maximum salary at $114,106. In January 2010, 2011 and 2012, the controllers' base pay will rise 3 percent. In addition, a specific group of 1,440 controllers hired before FAA imposed pay rules in 2006 will be awarded a one-time 8 percent increase in their base pay, though the group will receive the normal pay increases established by the mediators in the future. The ruling also requires a new pay system for trainee controllers.

In addition to pay issues, the mediators established a new review board to adjudicate controller grievances. The pay and work rules imposed in 2006 prompted controllers to file hundreds of thousands of grievances. While the ruling anticipated that some of those complaints would be moot given the new agreement, it established a panel with representatives from labor, management and at least one neutral party. The panel will have the power to grant, dismiss or settle grievances that remain.

Finally, the ruling mandates a new leave system. Controllers who have been with FAA for less than three years will accrue four hours of annual leave per pay period; employees with three to 15 years of service will accumulate six hours per period and 10 hours in the last pay period of the year; and employees with more than 15 years will earn eight hours of leave per pay period. The arbitrators said all FAA employees have the right to take two consecutive weeks of leave.

NATCA members have 45 days to ratify the contract, though the provisions decided by the mediators are not subject to ratification. If they vote to accept it, the agreement will remain in effect for three years from the date of approval, and will be automatically renewed for one-year periods at the end of that time, unless either the union or the agency requests that it be amended or terminated.

NATCA and FAA praised the agreement in a joint statement.

"We are hopeful that once the review and ratification are complete, we can accelerate our efforts to adopt NextGen, the next-generation air transportation system," FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said.

"This tentative agreement marks a turning point in the relationship between the FAA and its air traffic controller and traffic management employees," NATCA President Patrick Forrey said.

The mediators said they did not expect that the relationship between the union and the agency would change immediately.

"No one to this process assumes the relationship will somehow be healed overnight," they wrote. "But the existence of this dispute resolution process signals recognition by the leadership of these parties that there is a relationship worth maintaining."

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