FAA, air traffic controllers agree on new contract

August 13, 2009 11:18:55 AM PDT
Government air traffic controllers and the Obama administration have reached a tentative contract agreement that both sides said they hope will end years of severely strained relations. Arbitrators recently decided a handful of remaining issues involving pay and vacation time, clearing the way for Thursday's contract announcement by the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Union members have 45 days to ratify the contract.

President Barack Obama told controllers when he was running for the White House that he would address their problems with FAA. Earlier this year, he appointed former FAA Administrator Jane Garvey, who is popular with controllers, to oversee negotiations.

The nation's more than 15,000 controllers have been working without a contract since 2005. Relations with the government have been erratic over the years, never more strained than when President Ronald Reagan fired some 11,500 controllers in 1981 for refusing to end a strike and return to work.

Patrick Forrey, president of NATCA, said in a statement that the agreement marks a turning point in controllers' relations with the FAA. He thanked Obama and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for bringing the two sides together.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt also said the agreement signals "a new spirit of cooperation."

Both officials said they look forward to working together on one of FAA's top priorities, transitioning the air traffic control system from a system based on World War II-era radar technology to a satellite-based system.

The nation's more than 15,000 controllers have been working without a contract since 2005. The controllers' last contract expired in 2003 and was extended for two years by former FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush to succeed Garvey.

After that contract expired, and with negotiations at an impasse, Blakey and Congress imposed a new contract on controllers in 2006 that froze salaries for current employees and cut pay for new hires by 30 percent, among other actions opposed by the union.

Acrimony related to that contract has coincided with an acceleration in retirements by controllers, who have complained bitterly in recent years that understaffing and a disproportionate number of trainees and other less experienced controllers has jeopardized safety at a number of facilities around the country.

Congress, Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel and the Office of Special Counsel have all investigated, and in some cases validated, whistleblower complaints by controllers who say FAA has tried to cover up a variety of serious safety problems and punished controllers who raised safety issues.

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