WASHINGTON – The clock is ticking on a volatile labor struggle pitting the Federal Aviation Administration against the nation’s air traffic controllers.

At stake are not only pay and working conditions for the 14,000 air traffic controllers, but also the congressional role in labor negotiations and the safety of the traveling public.

For months the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association have been locked in a contract dispute, with the FAA calling air traffic controllers underproductive and overpaid. The agency wants a two-tier system that would reduce pay for new hires.

The FAA says average salaries well in excess of $100,000 are eating into money that would otherwise go to equipment maintenance and other critical matters. In rejecting the FAA’s proposal, agency spokesman Geoff Basye said, air traffic controllers “are putting their aviation aristocracy over the safety of the entire system.”

But Brad Rosenthal, an air traffic controller for 30 years and president of the St. Louis local, said the proposal is so bad that half the nation’s controllers would retire, leaving the system shorthanded.

The air traffic controllers and the government have not had this serious a confrontation since 1981, when President Ronald Reagan fired 11,500 striking controllers, a watershed event that sent labor into a tailspin from which it has never recovered.

Contract talks have gone nowhere, and the FAA declared an impasse. Under the law, it can impose its final offer on the workers June 5. Rosenthal says flight delays would result, as many employees start to leave.

Without taking sides, Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., are trying to change the process. They have filed bills calling for outside mediation when an impasse is reached, unless Congress devises its own compromise settlement.

“If the FAA gets to implement its last offer, the incentive is not there at the bargaining table for it to reach an agreement. It’s a very unfair process,” Costello said. “This is about the air traffic control system in the United States; it’s about fairness and the safety of the flying public.”

The matter is coming down to the wire, though language in the bills may offer flexibility on the June 5 deadline for congressional action. As a result, the coming weeks are likely to see frenetic activity among legislators, air traffic controllers and the FAA. Congress is in recess this week, reducing the time to reach a resolution.

Within Congress the spat has evolved into a partisan battle. Initially, Costello and his co-author, Rep. Sue Kelly, R-N.Y., got 265 House co-sponsors – including 75 Republicans. That level of support is far beyond the 218 votes needed to pass a bill.

But then the House GOP leadership and the administration began urging congressional Republicans to back off their support for the bill. The measure got bottled up in the House Transportation Committee’s aviation panel, where it remains. Costello is the panel’s top Democrat.

The chairman of the aviation subcommittee, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., made clear to House Republicans his displeasure with the bill. Mica’s spokesman, Gary Burns, said many Republicans who co-sponsored Costello’s bill didn’t fully understand the issues involved, including the controllers’ salaries, and changed their minds once Mica explained them.

Mica sent “two Dear Colleague letters” and a Wall Street Journal editorial to the 75 Republican co-sponsors. The impact was powerful – a petition Costello began last week to push the bill out of committee has drawn the support of 195 Democrats but no Republicans.

A number of Republican co-sponsors of the bill declined last week to discuss their current positions on the legislation. Even Kelly, who helped Costello write the measure, now refuses to talk about it.

In the Senate, Obama’s bill has attracted 38 co-sponsors, all Democrats. His spokesman, Tommy Vietor, said several Republicans had indicated they’d support it – if it gets out of the Senate committee where it is stuck.

The FAA’s Basye said the bills would “change the rules in the 11th hour.”

He also said that the controllers’ union should consider the agency’s budget, and that the FAA is offering a generous contract to controllers, with the proposed raises for current employees bringing average salaries and benefits to $187,000 from the current $166,000.

And new controllers hired this year will have average total compensation of $127,000 after five years, he said.

But Rosenthal said that because of complex formulas involving different locations around the country and varying volumes of air traffic, 97 percent of controllers would see no raise in base pay. As a result, their pensions will be diminished if they continue to work, he said. Moreover, controllers’ average salary without benefits is presently $113,000 and already declining as senior employees leave, according to the union.

The union estimates that one-quarter of the work force would retire next year under the new contract and that by 2008 more than half – 7,300 controllers – would quit, leaving remaining workers within the air traffic control system understaffed. It takes three to five years to fully train new controllers, Rosenthal said, and the two-tier pay system would lower the caliber of future hires.

Late Friday, congressional sources said House leaders had agreed to reopen the matter the week of June 5. Mica’s spokesman said details of a possible bill are “still fluid.”

Said Costello, “We’ve got momentum, and we’re going to continue to push this bill.”

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