- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2006

Air traffic controllers yesterday declared an end to lengthy, bitter contract negotiations with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Neither the National Air Traffic Controllers Association nor the FAA yesterday declared an impasse in talks, but that could happen after the two sides exchange final offers next week and leave the contract dispute in the hands of Congress.

John Carr, president of the 14,900-member air traffic controllers union, said federal mediators have released the union and FAA from negotiations, but the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service said that is a mischaracterization and the two sides could engage in more negotiations.

“Our understanding is that these talks are in recess and could be reconvened,” said John Arnold, a spokesman for the mediation and conciliation service.

The union isn’t endorsing more negotiations and predicted a wave of air traffic controller retirements if the FAA’s most recent contract offer is imposed because it effectively would cut retirement benefits.

“There will be no more talks, of that you can be sure,” Mr. Carr said.

The two sides essentially are at odds over the scope of pay cuts controllers will have to absorb, and pay for new controllers has become a main point of contention.

FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said the union should continue negotiations and she expected the two sides to meet again Tuesday to review new proposals.

“We’re continuing to stay at the table to try to get a voluntary agreement,” she said.

Talks began in July on a five-year contract, and the two sides were in mediation the past four weeks.

If an impasse is declared, the FAA can ask Congress to step in and impose the agency’s last contract proposal. The union would ask the Federal Services Impasse Panel, part of the independent Federal Labor Relations Authority, to mediate.

The union has lobbied for support in Congress. Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat, introduced a bill in January to make it more difficult for the FAA to impose a new collective bargaining agreement on the union.

Mr. Obama’s legislation would require the two sides to go to binding arbitration if Congress fails to approve or reject the contract within 60 days. Under current rules, the FAA can impose its final contract offer on the air traffic controllers, unless Congress prevents it from doing so.

The union said its offer would have saved the FAA $1.4 billion over five years and that the agency’s proposal sought $2 billion in savings from the union.

“We’re not going to get $2 billion out of 15,000 people. We’re just not going to get there,” Mr. Carr said.

Mr. Carr said the union agreed to eliminate its two highest pay scales, eliminate incentive pay and freeze wages for a year.

“We’ve met their needs. We have nowhere else to go,” he said.

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

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