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In August 1981, 11,500 air traffic controllers who belonged to the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, known as PATCO, were permanently fired by President Ronald Reagan, two days after their strike began, due to their violation of federal law.
The president felt that the union did not seriously consider the 'no-strike' provision of their contract and had no other choice, in order to avoid a disastrous disruption in United States airspace.
PATCO workers were then replaced with non-unionized employees.
Further to the firing, President Reagan through an Executive Order in 1982, prevented any of the fired air traffic controllers from being rehired in the future by the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), which oversees U.
S.
air traffic control.
Over the next 3-4 year period new controllers were hired and trained in order to replace those fired, provided with supplementation by the U.
S.
military, in order to keep planes in the air.
In 1993, also by Executive Order, President Bill Clinton rescinded Reagan's Order, allowing previously fired PATCO workers to be hired again by the FAA, which presently includes several hundred of the previously dismissed.
Now, nearly 25 years later, the newly named air traffic controllers union, National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), is in prolonged contract negotiations once again with the FAA, which began July 13, 2005.
The present contract, which expired in 2003 was extended until September 30, 2005, with salaries frozen and benefits continued until new terms were met.
As of September 30, 2005, the contract has expired but continues under an "evergreen clause," allowing for the original contract to remain in effect as long as talks continue.
Similarly to the negotiations which led to the 1981 strike are the issues of increased salaries and reduced working hours.
But more differences than similarities exist in the present talks.
Since the last agreement was negotiated in 1998, NATCA members are working longer hours and have more security responsibilities in the wake of September 11, 2001.
In addition, after the initial tailing off of air travel at the end of 2001 and the beginning of 2002, there are now more flights in the air at any one time in the history of aviation travel, but with fewer controllers watching over more airplanes in the U.
S.
, which has the world's busiest airspace.
However, in the last two years, the FAA has lost 1,000 controllers.
But at the crux of the problem is that many of the controllers today are those who were hired in the early 1980's and are set for retirement either immediately or in the near future.
There is a federal mandate which requires all controllers to retire at age 56 whether or not there are employees to replace them.
The FAA admits that 2,580 controllers are set to retire between 2005 and 2007 while only hiring an additional 13 in 2004.
Additionally, there are not enough replacements in waiting in order fill the quota.
Instead of the originally promised 1,248 hires for Fiscal Year 2006, the FAA will now only hire 595 and phase in the remaining 654, by replacing one retiree at a time.
With 9,000 of its 14,500 current number of air traffic controllers having been hired in the early 1980's, the FAA has dragged its heels on implementing a replenishment system known about for years.
In a Government Accountability Office report issued in June 2002, it stated that "The FAA has not done enough to plan for the impending staffing crisis and needs to do so as soon as possible.
It has not developed such a comprehensive workforce strategy to address all of the challenges it faces in responding to its impending need for thousands of new air traffic controllers, thus increasing the risk that the FAA will not have enough qualified controllers when necessary to meet air traffic demands.
" Sadly, the FAA took two more years to acknowledge their shortcomings regarding staffing needs, publishing a similar report of their own in 2004, but has recently promised to add 12,500 controllers over the next ten years.
The FAA is an agency under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation (DOT), whose central responsibility is to ensure the safe and efficient air travel within the U.
S.
airspace system.
According to the FAA administrator's fact book for March 2005, in 2004 air traffic in the national airspace system included over 46 million flights and 647 million travelers.
That translates into as many as 7,000 aircraft, including commercial and military, all flying at any one time.
Given those numbers, the number of incidents including accidents and fatalities are very few, and both figure into the arguments of both negotiating sides.
According to NATCA the dependability of the system is crucial to the number of workers in addition to restricting the amount of overtime necessary to keep the air traffic control towers, Terminal Radar Approach Control facilities, Air Route Traffic Control Centers and the Air Traffic Control System Command Center all functioning smoothly.
And by virtue of the success of the system, the FAA says the needs are not as dire as depicted by the union.
Yet, aviation safety investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found as of September 30, 2005, 324 incursions, or near misses, involving various types of aircraft including three near misses of commercial jet liners in the past six months in Boston, New York and Las Vegas.
The most recent incident involved US Airways and Comair flights on November 9, 2005 in which the US Airways jet aborted its landing at the last possible second when approaching Ft.
Lauderdale's airport, missing the Comair jet by a mere 100 feet.
A new software program for runway surveillance has been pressed for by the NTSB for all major airports for several years.
Presently, nearly all major airports use the Airport Movement Area Safety System (AMASS) which routinely fails or has limitations during periods of precipitation.
The Airport Surface Detection Equipment-X system uses additional sensors to complement radar detection, and compensates for deficiencies in radar-only surface surveillance systems as is AMASS.
In addition, ASDE-X is less sensitive to precipitation.
However, missing from both systems is a direct warning system, meaning it requires the information be dispatched to air traffic controllers to then be relayed to flight crews on the runway.
Thus, a matter of a few seconds could be crucial in matters of near misses when planes are taking off and landing within seconds of each other.
Nevertheless, the equipping of the ASDE-X systems exists at only 16 major airports with only additional select airports to be provided with the ASDE-X system by 2011, according to the FAA.
But with labor costs accounting for 80% of the FAA's $8.
2 billion operating budget, the FAA's first priority is the freezing of controllers' salaries with merit-based pay raises replacing cost-of-living increases.
The current air traffic controllers' average salary is $128,000, excluding benefits and overtime pay.
NATCA has supposedly asked for a 5.
6 % pay increase each year over the next five years, although the union has publicly disputed such figures.
Regardless of the figures, however, the union also is under the gun, much like unions in the private sector these days, with threats of outsourcing by the FAA, should negotiations fail.
In addition, should both sides reach an impasse as declared by a federal mediator, which the FAA has already called for, the FAA gets closer to calling upon the Congress for a review of its proposal.
Should the Congress fail to act on its proposal within 60 days thereafter, then the FAA could unilaterally impose its contract upon NATCA.
And while there are many concerns remaining regarding air travel security, such as the lack of inspection of cargo on commercial airliners, it is hard to argue that it is crucial for the FAA to implement a program that both maintains and improves airspace safety, which includes both personnel and infrastructure needs.
Regardless of the negotiations and political posturing by both the FAA and NATCA it would serve them both well to stay on point during deliberations in order to remain on the key issues, keeping in mind the welfare of the flying public as well as the national security of the U.
S.
, which essentially should be their main mission.
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