FAA-air workers contract disputed

Traffic controllers seek public support

May 16, 2006|By MEREDITH COHN | MEREDITH COHN,SUN REPORTER

A dispute between the federal government and air traffic controllers, many of whom arrived a quarter-century ago after President Reagan fired their predecessors in a pivotal showdown with organized labor, spilled into public view yesterday.

At airports around the country, including Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, controllers handed out leaflets to passengers to present their side of an argument over a proposed five-year contract with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Several of the 26 controllers who guide some 800 to 900 flights a day at BWI were asking the public to call on Congress to intervene before the FAA imposes new work and pay rules in the contract. Controllers contend the changes would drive many eligible workers into retirement and jeopardize safety in the skies.

"Over the five-year term of the contract, 17 of the 26 controllers here are eligible to retire, and if this contract is imposed, they would have no incentive to stay," said John Dunkerly, a controller at BWI for about 9 years and a union leader.

"There aren't enough controllers in training to replace them. And even if there were, this is a job where experience matters," Dunkerly said.

A spokesman for the FAA countered yesterday that the controllers are well compensated and its new contract continues some wage increases while giving the administrators new flexibility to ensure aviation safety and more money to pay for costly technology upgrades.

The average controller makes $128,500, not including nearly $40,000 in benefits, up about 75 percent since 1998, according to the FAA. That has pushed the cost of salaries to $2.4 billion this year, from $1.4 billion in 1998, the agency says.

The FAA says its contract offer would boost the average pay to $139,900 in the fifth yearof the new contract that, by law, the agency can force the controllers' union to accept June 5 if Congress does not act.

"It's not a 75 percent pay increase, but it's a gradual one," said Geoff Basye, an FAA spokesman. "This is at the same time [that] many other professionals responsible for aviation safety, namely pilots, are taking pay and benefits cuts."

Many of the 14,575 controllers were hired in 1981, when Reagan fired controllers he said were illegally striking. A large number of them are eligible to retire within five years. The controllers contend that the contract offer reduces many controllers' salaries because it limits extra pay, called premiun pay, for such things as working in busy airports or serving as a temporary supervisor.

The FAA says the extra money averages about $15,000 per worker, and it acknowledges plans to eliminate some of it. The sides agreed new hires would start with less pay. Total savings from the FAA proposal would be $1.9 billion over five years, the agency says.

The FAA expects 1,000 controllers to retire by the end of 2007, but the controllers say a contract that cuts pay would lead to more than that. Retirement pay is based on the average of the last three years of service, prompting controllers to leave while they're at top dollar.

The controllers also say new work rules would be unfair, allowing the FAA to call in workers on their day off or requiring controllers to work nights after working days with little notice. The controllers sit in the tower on the tarmac, guiding airplanes within five to seven miles of the airport and on the ground. Workers who help the airplane move in and out of the gates work for the airlines.

The 10-month dispute between the sides reached an impasse in April. At impasse, federal law requires the FAA to pass the issue onto Congress, which has 60 days to act or the FAA-proposed contract becomes final.

Lawmakers have responded with legislation that would force the sides into binding arbitration. A House measure appears to have strong support, but prospects in the Senate are less clear. New York Republican Rep. Sue W. Kelly said at the time she introduced the House version that it would ensure fairness at the negotiating table.

She said more than 70 percent of the air traffic controller work force could retire during the next 10 years, and it was important to not undermine existing controllers and new recruits.

The controllers hoped yesterday's appeal to the public would encourage more passengers to appeal to more lawmakers. But the difficulty in that was evident with the response from Kay Keehfus, traveling yesterday from BWI to a vacation in Las Vegas.

"I definitely feel they're important. We couldn't fly without them. And they must be doing a good job because we don't have mid-air collisions," she said. But would she call her congressman?

"Probably not. It depends on how much money they're making now."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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