ATC Pay

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Editor's Note: This opinion piece from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) is in response to a letter from an AVweb reader about recent negotiations between the FAA and NATCA.

ATIS

First of all, NATCA is not proposing a pay increase. NATCA has proposed the current pay table, meaning the status quo would be maintained for pay rules throughout the term of the agreement. This proposal would require no new FAA investment for implementation and would continue to leave the annual federal pay raise at the discretion of Congress and the President's pay agent.

Of even greater concern, the FAA is attempting to strip out an important incentive program that encourages a safer air traffic control system. The NATCA proposal preserves the important pay-for-performance component. This system that we endorse substitutes automatic step increases with a system where pay raises are only earned when agency goals (set by the Administrator) are met. These goals include important safety and operational components, including the reduction of runway incursions and operational errors as well as capacity goals.

The FAA's pay proposal, conversely, seeks to cut controller pay, not freeze it, as the administrator said on Monday (NewsWire, Dec. 1). Several ways controllers earn their salary, on top of base pay -- including training new controllers and serving in supervisory roles -- would be wiped out under the FAA proposal, thereby reducing pay for many controllers by as much as 20 percent.

Let's keep in mind the facts here:

  • Under the current Administrator, FAA costs have gone up. But while they try to blame these cost increases on air traffic control salaries, even the Administrator cannot provide accurate cost control or financial data to back up those claims.
  • What is provable is that under the current Administrator, middle management at the FAA has ballooned. There is now one supervisor for every six air traffic controllers.
  • The FAA has failed to invest in modernization and failed to address a looming staffing crisis. Rather than productively working with the union to address these issues, the FAA is trying to bury them under a cloud of blame.

As for the FAA's comments about our last contract and the pay raises it gave controllers (NewsWire, Nov. 30), here are the facts:

  • The average Federal employee's wages increased by 54% during the same time period.
  • And the additional 14% earned by controllers was more than covered by increased productivity and efficiency, to make up for staffing shortages never addressed by the FAA. With the reduction of 1,000 controllers over the past seven years and a substantial increase in air traffic, the remaining 14,500 have to work harder and longer, to keep the more congested skies, safe for American travelers.
  • In fact, the high productivity level of these air traffic controllers was documented by the European air traffic control organization, Eurocontrol. Their study put America's air traffic control system at a remarkable 74% more productive than their European counterpart.

As to the FAA's comments about our average pay being $166,000, here are the facts:

  • The FAA inflated that number by including within it standard benefits for Federal employees
  • In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics cites that the average salary for Air Traffic Controllers is $99,710 -- nowhere near the salary level being suggested by the FAA.
  • Utilizing supposed "averages" as a debating point is disingenuous, because, like any highly-skilled profession, compensation varies greatly depending on experience, seniority and geographic location. For example, a controller managing aircraft in and out of Chicago- O'Hare, is clearly going to receive a significantly higher salary than a controller that works at a small regional airport in a more rural location.
  • Air Traffic Controllers also have careers that are shorter than regular employees, a fact confirmed by the Director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Kay Cole James. Therefore, they have fewer years of employment to provide their families with financial security.

Getting back to a point made earlier, the FAA's assertion that their contract proposal to NATCA would not result in pay cuts for current employees is false and misleading.

In her most recent public relations activity on the topic, Marion Blakey stated, "Our pay scale for new controllers takes the pay structure that was in effect in 1997 and raises it to reflect the full benefit of all pay increases provided to the rest of federal civil servants since then." This is simply not true, as outlined below.

In 1997, a new pay system was instituted for air traffic controllers because pay compression was occurring (most controllers had already reached the GS-14 government pay grade). ATRA gave a 5% premium to air traffic controllers and reduced the gap between pay grades. Facilities already at the GS-14 level transitioned into a new system labeled ATC-9, -10, -11, and -12 pay bands.

Using the example of a controller at GS-14 who transitioned into the FAA pay system as an ATC-9, we see that the FAA proposal would put controller pay well below the rate it would be under the old system.

This is reflected in the following table:

ATC Level ATC-9 Salary Minimum Maximum
FAA proposal for 2006 (ATC-9) 54,100 76,500
Difference between GS-14 scale and FAA proposal -22,093 -27,506
FAA proposed pay cut from 1997 system 27% 26%

The FAA pay proposal would set air traffic controller pay at a level that is 26% lower than if the 1998 agreement had never existed.

It is even more instructive to see the relationship between the FAA's latest pay proposal and the current system for ATC. Again, The FAA's proposal for 2006 for ATC-9 is a minimum of $54,100 and a maximum of $76,500. The current ATC-9 pay is a minimum of $79,106 and a maximum of $110,748. The pay cuts equal 31% and 30%, respectively.

Bottom line: Monday's publicity stunt by the FAA was just the latest example of the FAA negotiating in bad faith, misleading the public and refusing to engage on the critical safety issues that affect America's aviation system. This move by the agency isn't an indication of where contract negotiations stand -- it's just the latest tactic in the FAA's strategy to side-step genuine and constructive negotiations.