Control tower rift widens

FAA faces showdown with controllers over pact


In August 1981, the nation's airlines, already battered by a recession, faced the grim prospect that air traffic controllers would shut down air travel if their demands for better pay and work rules weren't met.

Those fears were realized when 12,000 union workers went on strike and were fired days later by President Ronald W. Reagan. The outcome was a turning point for the fortunes of organized labor and also fulfilled the airlines' fears: Flight delays and losses were common for years due to short staffing and as new controllers learned the ropes.

Now, a quarter-century later, history threatens to repeat itself.

The Federal Aviation Administration is battling with the replacement controllers over many of the same issues. While no strike is being considered, a stalemate threatens again to hamper aviation, which is going through economic pangs in spite of record numbers of air travelers.

"It's quite a game of chicken," said Robert Mark, a controller before the 1981 strike and an FAA supervisor after. "The traveling public probably remembers sitting on an airplane in Washington or Kansas City or Los Angeles and hearing that it can't go anywhere because the air controllers were on strike. Nobody wants that again, but the same stuff is at stake."

The concern now is how many of the 14,000 controllers will choose to retire if they don't like the provisions of their new contract. The FAA says it is training new workers and is prepared. But the controllers say there aren't enough replacements in the pipeline for technical and stressful positions that require years of on-the-job training.

Now, as then, the debate centers on pay and work rules.

The controllers' union wants pay to match the longer days, as airplane departures have more than doubled since the early 1980s to 11.5 million. It also wants a continuation of extra pay for supervising or working in the busiest airports.

The FAA wants to rein in pay increases that have far outpaced inflation and use the money to upgrade technology.

Average annual pay for air traffic controllers is about $113,000. In 1981, when the controllers union struggled to muster public support, average pay was $33,000 (or about $80,000 adjusted for today's dollars). With the two sides at an impasse, Congress has until June 5 to impose a solution or the FAA's latest proposal will take effect.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced bills to force arbitration, against the wishes of the FAA and the airline industry's trade association, which said cuts are needed to finance a modern aviation system. With both sides accusing the other of abandoning negotiations, public appeals have followed.

The controllers as a group haven't been much in the public eye in 25 years, with the exception of Sept. 11, 2001, when the FAA grounded flights immediately after the hijackings.

Last week, the controllers handed out leaflets to travelers at airports across the country, including Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

The controllers say the FAA contract makes it more attractive to retire and take benefits while they are at their peak, rather than suffer potential cuts in pay, forced overtime and less vacation.

They say there already are shortages of controllers - overtime pay grew to $43 million last year, from about $27 million in 1999, according to the FAA - and between 3,000 and 4,000 controllers are eligible to retire by the end of next year. Overtime pay has pushed some top controllers' salaries close to $200,000, the FAA said.

A matter of pay

The pay is the main reason FAA officials say they expect no more than 1,100 controllers to retire regardless of the contract.

Many are eligible to retire after 20 years on the job and must leave at age 56. About 500 have studied at the FAA academy in Oklahoma City this year and others are studying in college programs or seeking to move from military controller assignments, the FAA said.

"We don't think they'll leave hundreds of thousands on the table just to make a point," said Geoff Basye, a FAA spokesman. "Saying the contract will cause mass retirements is a scare tactic."

The FAA reports that labor makes up 80 percent of its operating budget of $2.4 billion, up from $1.4 billion in 1998. A new contract struck that year gave controllers a 75 percent raise over five years, which was on top of the 50 percent raises given to other federal workers who were seeking parity with private-sector jobs.

If the FAA can slow the payroll growth, it can invest in a more efficient satellite-based traffic management computer system, the agency says. Basye, the FAA spokesman, said there is no timetable for the upgrades.

And a recent report from the Government Accountability Office said the FAA faces challenges in implementing a new system - among them the prospect that it would need to hire thousands of air traffic controllers.

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