November 27, 2005

Talks test FAA and air controllers’ ties

By John Crawley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With contract talks off to a bumpy
start, relations between the Federal Aviation Administration
and U.S. air traffic controllers are at their most contentious
since thousands of them were fired during a 1981 strike,
government and union officials say.

The two sides have waged a public fight over pay, staffing,
safety, management bonuses and controller overtime. Aviation
insiders believe the sharp exchange -- amplified by television
and newspaper advertisements -- has cleaved a new front in the
industry's escalating conflict between labor and management.

"I've been at the FAA since 1982 and morale is the worst I
have ever seen it," said John Carr, president of the National
Air Traffic Controllers Association.

"What have they done to help that relationship?" snapped
FAA spokesman Greg Martin.

The healthy business and government fiscal climate that led
to a lucrative agreement seven years ago gave way soon after
the September 11, 2001, hijack attacks to a financial storm
that continues to lash U.S. carriers.

Big airlines that showered workers with record wages,
enhanced stock plans and other benefits now argue rich union
contracts threaten solvency. Some have leveraged bankruptcy or
the threat of it to cut thousands of jobs, dismantle work rules
and gut contracts and pensions.

"Unions are hurting terribly. It's a rush to the bottom for
so many companies," says Charles Craver, a labor law expert at
George Washington University.

The FAA's finances are not as dire as the industry's but
the agency also uses budget pressures to publicly question
controller salaries and work rules. Labor expenses account for
80 percent of the FAA's $8.2 billion operating budget, and the
14,500 unionized controllers are the biggest labor group.

Airline ticket and fuel tax receipts that help fund FAA
programs have not met projections in recent years as fares have
dropped and the White House and Congress -- wrestling with
record deficits -- have demanded the agency go on a diet.

"We cannot afford an agreement like 1998 that saddled the
FAA with excessive costs, archaic work rules and restrictions
on our ability to modernize the system," said FAA Administrator
Marion Blakey.

She said the first three years of the last contract
agreement cost the government an additional $1 billion. She has
denounced average annual compensation topping $165,000 for
controllers, including overtime and benefits.

Blakey wants to rewrite rules on scheduling, work load and
performance. She also wants to lower salaries for incoming
controllers. Negotiations that started last summer are going
more slowly than planned and the two sides are far apart on key
issues, Blakey says.

Union president Carr does not dispute some funding
constraints but says the FAA is inflating salary figures, not
hiring new controllers fast enough and overworking others while
air traffic continues to soar -- with 680 million passengers
last year.

He claims the FAA has rejected union proposals at the
bargaining table on staffing and other issues and ignored
claims of overwork and employee stress.

"When your employer does not believe you are giving
industrious service and value it kind of makes it hard to have
a good relationship," Carr said.

Much of the current angst over staffing can be traced to
1981, when then-President Ronald Reagan fired 13,000 striking
controllers who refused to heed his back-to-work order. Many of
the controllers on the job now were hired in the early 1980s
and are eligible to retire now or in the near future.

One former FAA official familiar with the last contract
said there is room for a deal and controllers might accept some
changes. "In fairness to the Bush administration, these are
somewhat different times," the former official said.