- The Washington Times - Monday, April 10, 2006

Federal Aviation Administration chief Marion Blakey has just ended contract talks between the government and the air traffic controllers and declared an impasse. “We have simply concluded that the gap between us is too large to continue these negotiations,” she said, referring to bargaining that began back in July 2005.

The FAA administrator declared that the union refused to budge on the critical issues of more flexible controller scheduling and efficient work modernization, while demanding dramatic increases in pay when they already make much more than other government employees. Now that impasse has been declared, Congress has 60 days to intercede.

In 1995, Bill Clinton proposed reform of the FAA and a Republican Congress, incredibly, approved a bill that allowed the FAA to create a new labor system. In 1996, Mr. Clinton adopted a plan that allowed the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) to bargain with FAA on all personnel matters. Although special pay rates and informal negotiating over compensation had existed earlier, this was the first time for actual pay bargaining. In 1998, that union-dependent administration caved in to today’s average controller pay of $166,000 (not counting the most generous pension and benefits in the world), with the top rate of $197,000 exceeding the pay of all cabinet secretaries — and costing $1.9 billion.

That was not enough. NATCA demanded $2.6 billion additional salary and a shorter work day, too. Considering the high benefits and with tight budgets, FAA proposed a freeze on pay, since labor represents three-fourths of its costs, and demanded union concessions on the inflexible labor rules that create red tape and frustrate air control efficiency. In a concession to sanity in the case of an impasse, the 1996 FAA rules allow management to submit a last offer to the union after the negotiation period that if refused, would be sent to Congress. If Congress does not act in 60 days, FAA can impose its final offer.

The FAA proposal does not cut the salaries of controllers already on the job. It “grandfathers” the annual salary (base pay and locality pay) for existing controllers and also provides for future locality increases and performance pay awards. The proposal also implements a new pay plan that aligns new controller salaries with the rest of the FAA’s professional workforce. The FAA proposal also gives the agency the flexibility to introduce new safety technology more quickly and to deploy controllers based on actual air traffic demand.

NATCA ran to its allies on the Hill and Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat, submitted legislation substituting binding arbitration if Congress does not act. Given that the union collects $20 million annually from its members (up, as the result of the generous pay, from a measly $8 million in 1998), it has the resources to get itself on the legislative agenda, including the services of the lobbying firm of the former Republican National Committee chairman, Ed Gillespie. Acting within 60 days, much less passing new legislation, would be difficult but it did place tremendous political pressure on Ms. Blakey.

Is there a better way than this messy and irrational political game of one-upmanship? In 1996, the Clinton administration originally proposed a full divesting of the Air Traffic Control (ATC) function to a new government corporation modeled after Amtrak and the Postal Service, appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Republicans, not exactly inspired by the Amtrak analogy, went one better and asked for full privatization. These more fundamental reforms blocked each other, resulting in the current compromise system preferred by almost no one.

Sixteen countries have moved ATC services to independent or private control in the past decade, most appropriately retaining the safety function within the government. Most of these reformed systems now depend on user fees, rationalizing costs and charges, although retaining lower payments for private aircraft based on market criteria. Results for New Zealand, Australia and Canada have been especially positive without any detectable negative effects on safety.

Twenty-five years ago Ronald Reagan changed labor relations in America by firing the air traffic controllers for striking illegally over pay, violating their oath as federal employees. George W. Bush and the Republicans in Congress now face an equally aggressive union. The issue is whether they will assure that the FAA decision stands. The courageous action by Marion Blakey actually offers the Bush administration an opportunity. President Reagan’s decisive action proved an enormous stimulus to his policy agenda and, if he is bold enough to promote even more fundamental reform, President Bush just might be able to reignite the flame for his administration, too.

Donald Devine, former director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, is a political science professor at Bellevue University and editor of ConservativeBattleline.com.

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