ATC: A potentially explosive problem

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Not since 1981, when the air traffic controllers struck the FAA and then-President Ronald Reagan ordered them fired and replaced, has the air traffic control situation been as potentially explosive as it is now.

After nine months of bitter contract negotiations, by law the mess went to the Congress, which had 60 days to take any action. The House failed to come up with the necessary two-thirds vote on a bill to force the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) back into binding arbitration, so the government moved ahead, implementing its final contract proposal. Even if the bill had passed, President Bush promised to veto it, leaving the dispute unresolved.

NATCA pushed hard to get the bill introduced and for its passage. After the vote, NATCA President John Carr claimed “”a clear bipartisan majority”” voted in favor of the bill — 271 members, 65% of the members who voted. Carr added: “”We hope that the FAA has received that message.”” Carr noted other legislative avenues are open and NATCA “”looks forward to pursuing (them) aggressively.””

Under the FAA’s changes now in effect, current controllers will be “”grandfathered”” under the old contract as far as compensation. New hires will start at about 30% less than previous ones. This lower wage will be basically for the training period but, according to the FAA, at the end of five years new controllers will be earning about $127,000 a year, some $17,000 or $18,000 less than current controllers after that period.

Additionally, the new contract changes some of the operating rules that the FAA believes will give managers and supervisors more control.

According to Carr, about one in four — or about 4,000 — veteran controllers could be displeased enough with the new terms and conditions that they will retire. “”This would have a domino effect on everything from employee recruitment to delays to safety across the U.S. aviation system,”” he said.

FAA Administrator Marion Blakey counters this, commenting that although the previous contract with the union has ended, the phase-in of the new terms and conditions “”will be handled in a deliberate and orderly manner.””

Any mass exodus by veteran controllers could put additional strains on a system that even at its best is strained to handle traffic in some locations. Also, any job action slow downs could affect traffic management in the heavy travel months during the summer.

HERE WE GO AGAIN

I live less than five miles away from Montgomery County Airpark at Gaithersburg, Md., and once again F-16 fighter jets roared low over the house as they overflew a Blackhawk helicopter that was escorting a Cessna 182 into the airport. Another general aviation pilot had blundered into the ADIZ. This time, the pilot said he wasn’t aware of the ADIZ. It used to be I would rush over to the airport in hopes of getting an interview with the errant pilot. This time, I merely turned to my wife and said: “”Here we go again.””

Incursions are getting so routine that they make little news. They are more frequent than anyone in general aviation cares to admit. Most are corrected by radio contact or Blackhawk helicopter intercept. Unfortunately, those persons in government responsible for rules and regulations are aware of the number, all of which makes the job of protecting general aviation interests more difficult.

MONEY MAKES THE CAPITOL GO-ROUND

Budgets take center stage this time of year. Example: Weather reporting satellites expected to help in forecasting are falling far behind schedule. The National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), originally planned for $6.5 billion to be operational in 2009, now is estimated at $11.1 billion and won’t be up until 2013.

Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.

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