- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 26, 2006

Air traffic controllers are gathering support from lawmakers to help their bitter negotiations with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat, yesterday introduced a bill the union of controllers says will make it harder for the FAA to impose a new collective-bargaining agreement on the union if talks break down.

Controllers and the FAA opened talks last year on a new labor contract, and discussions on a new five-year deal for controllers have included regular verbal attacks by both sides — from charges that controllers are overpaid to assertions that the federal agency hired a union-busting negotiator.

John Carr, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said the 14,525-member union is pressing for the new legislation because it believes the FAA has little interest in negotiating. Instead, the agency wants contract talks to stall, declare an impasse and have its last offer approved by Congress, Mr. Carr said.

“We’re hoping this bill gets the FAA back to the negotiating table,” he said.

FAA officials say they are frustrated by the slow pace of negotiations, and last month FAA Administrator Marion Blakey called on the union to allow federal mediators to help contract talks.

Asking for help from mediators was not a first step toward declaring an impasse, Ms. Blakey wrote Jan. 13 to Mr. Obama, but an attempt to bridge differences.

If the union were serious about completing negotiations, FAA spokesman Greg Martin said, it would agree to mediation.

Mr. Carr rejected assertions that contract talks have stalled, because negotiators have resolved 91 of 152 articles, and he called on Ms. Blakey to end a campaign portraying contract talks as deadlocked. The contract takes effect if Congress approves the proposed agreement. Mr. Carr said Mr. Obama’s proposed legislation would require the two sides to go to binding arbitration if Congress fails to approve or reject the contract within 60 days.

Currently, the FAA can send its last contract proposal to Congress if one side declares an impasse and mediation fails to resolve their differences.

The previous labor agreement, approved in 1998 and extended for two years in 2003, expired Sept. 30 but has remained in effect.

Federal officials this week said the union’s latest proposal is too expensive and will raise labor costs by $2 billion over five years.

“We cannot afford this and you cannot afford this,” Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta told the Aero Club of Washington in a speech Wednesday.

That money would be better spent funding new equipment as the FAA attempts to modernize its navigation, communication and airplane-surveillance systems, Mr. Mineta said.

Mr. Carr yesterday said the latest contract proposal from the union would save the FAA $543 million over five years — not cost $2 billion — because it relies on lower pay for new controllers who replace the estimated 10,700 controllers eligible for retirement in the next decade.

Controllers have average annual wage and benefit packages of $165,400, according to the FAA.

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