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FAA boss wants mediators for labor talks

The nation's top aviation official called Monday for federal mediators to intervene in troubled talks between the government and air traffic controllers.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The nation’s top aviation official said Monday that federal mediators should intervene in talks between the government and air traffic controllers, but the union says there’s no reason for it because the talks are progressing.

The relationship between the Federal Aviation Administration and the controllers’ union is at its lowest point in years. FAA Administrator Marion Blakey called for mediators because she said little progress had been made in the talks, which began in July.

“Their current proposal does not recognize the hard realities of an industry that is in financial trouble, real taxpayer concerns and the fiscal challenges confronting this agency,” she said during a news conference. “They just aren’t moving on the issues at the heart of the negotiations.”

Ruth Marlin, executive vice president for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said she was “a bit surprised by Marion Blakey’s publicity stunt. There’s no need for a mediator because the two sides are finding agreement on such issues as temporary assignments, flexible spending accounts, employee assistance, bidding for vacancies and managing reductions in force.

Still unresolved, though, is the thorny issue of salary.

According to the FAA, the controllers proposed a 5.6 percent increase, which would bring their average total compensation to over $200,000 within four years.

The FAA includes pension and other benefits in its calculation of how much controllers earn, however. The agency says the average controller earns $166,000 a year, but only $128,000 of that is in the form of wages.

Marlin says she doesn’t know how much the average controller earns, but that FAA negotiators have told bargainers at the table that it’s a little more than $100,000 a year.

Marlin said the FAA wants to cut salaries by as much as 30 percent. The union proposal would keep the current system as it is, and controllers would only get cost-of-living and civil service step increases, similar to other government workers, she said.

Controllers say they are overworked because the FAA froze hiring after many controllers left. They claim safety could be compromised, although FAA officials dispute that.

Mediators could be brought in if the union agrees to them. Blakey said if the union does not want mediators, FAA negotiators will stay at the table.

The last contract expired in 2003 but it was extended for two years with minor changes.

The relationship between the government and the controller’s union reached its low point in 1981, when then-President Reagan fired more than 11,500 controllers and hired replacements. Nearly three-quarters of those replacements will be eligible to retire in the next decade.

The FAA has announced a plan to replenish the ranks of controllers but the union says it doesn’t do enough to cover the losses.