PR War Precedes Controller Contract Talks
To some observers, contract negotiations between the FAA and its air traffic controllers are shaping up to be the most divisive, confrontational and acrimonious talks since President Ronald Reagan fired striking controllers in 1981 — and the latest round of bargaining hasn’t even begun yet. The two sides don’t formally sit down until next week but in back-to-back news teleconferences, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey and John Carr, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), each promised courteous and productive talks while delivering (sometimes) carefully worded but plainly pointed barbs at their counterparts. “Frankly, I’m surprised she stooped so low so soon,” Carr said of Blakey’s comparison between the wages and working conditions of controllers versus firefighters and police officers, who are generally paid less and who, Blakey noted, “put their lives on the line” on the job. Even the backdrop of the teleconference had its share of drama. NATCA announced its Wednesday teleconference to selected media representatives late Tuesday. On Wednesday morning, the FAA announced it would be holding a teleconference 90 minutes prior to NATCA’s 1 p.m. (EST) conference, although problems with the FAA’s telephone conference system forced a one-hour delay in the start time. FAA spokesman Greg Martin said that when FAA officials learned of the NATCA teleconference, which the union said was to discuss, in part, “concerns about the effect of recent FAA hostile actions on the workforce”, the FAA felt it had to get its side of the story out. “It was not our intention to begin this way but we are not going to let others define what this is all about,” Martin told AVweb.
…FAA, NATCA, She Said, He Said…
Blakey told reporters that, “We can’t afford an agreement like 1998.” The existing contract, signed under a previous administrator and extended by her two years ago, is a “bad deal” that costs too much. She said the average controller’s annual pay package, excluding retirement benefits, is now more than $165,000 and that some make more than $200,000 a year. Blakey also claims the contract gives the union “de facto control” over scheduling and staffing levels. NATCA’s Carr vehemently denied that the union had seized control of staffing and shifting, and offered to pay Blakey or any of the reporters taking part in his teleconference $1 million if they could find within the wording of the existing contract proof the union was granted such powers. Carr called the assertions “patently false” and said it’s ludicrous to think that a bureaucracy the size of the FAA could be cowed by a 15,000-member union.
The disagreement comes a couple of months after the FAA issued a blistering report on staffing and overtime issues at the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) that painted the picture that FAA managers had virtually lost control of the facility. She noted that the conditions in New York are not typical of the agency’s other facilities. However, Carr alleged that both the timing and content of the report were a “shot across the bow” and part of a “very aggressive PR campaign leading up to the negotiations” on the part of the FAA. He described the FAA’s handling of the New York situation and other recent decisions, like the disbanding of a union-management liaison unit on technology, “strong-arm tactics” and accused the FAA of having a “narrow and ideologically driven” agenda. Blakey eliminated one potential hot spot from the discussions — privatization. She dismissed any notion of privatization or outsourcing air traffic control and said any discussion on the topic would be a red herring. Blakey and Carr both agreed that new technologies and new methods must be employed to meet rapidly increasing traffic counts and that both will cost huge amounts of money.
..And If No Agreement Is Reached
Blakey and Carr both pledged to take the high road during the talks, but it’s the vantage point that creates the perception and while the two may be approaching a problem from opposite sides of the coin there may be more obstacles. “We don’t think these negotiations need to be contentious,” said Blakey. Carr said he was entering the negotiations “with an open mind and a very positive attitude.” But the two sides have different ideas on what will happen if the talks fail to achieve a mutual agreement. According to the FAA’s legal interpretation, if the two sides reach an impasse, it will be up to Congress to pass judgment on the deal. If Congress fails to come up with a solution, the FAA says it has the authority to impose its contract on the union. Carr disagrees and that particular disagreement is already before the courts. Carr said that on Sunday the FAA used those sections of law to impose an agreement on one of NATCA’s bargaining units representing 1,900 mostly technical employees. He noted the impasse in those talks had been reached 18 months ago and it had been with Congress since then but the FAA chose the eve of the controllers’ talks to flex its muscles. NATCA has started court action to dispute the validity of the FAA’s actions and the legal basis for them.