Air traffic controller exodus on horizon?

With salary talks stalled, a local union official warns of mass retirements. The FAA says it is prepared.

Published April 11, 2006

The national air traffic controllers union says the federal government's refusal to continue contract negotiations could trigger a wave of controller retirements, leaving fewer people to guide an increasing number of airplanes.

Federal Aviation Administration officials say the union's pay demands are excessive. They say they are prepared for the retirement of some personnel hired in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan fired 10,500 striking air traffic controllers.

Their replacements are now reaching 25 years of service.

The latest round in stalled talks between the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association came to the Tampa Bay area Monday, where the union is trying to generate public support for its position.

Pat McCormick, president of the union at Tampa International Airport, said Monday that TIA, authorized to have 67 controllers, has only 61, and 30 of them are eligible to retire next year.

"There is no incentive to stay. It's in everyone's best interest to retire when they put in their 25 years," McCormick said. "And I don't see any new controllers coming on to replace the guys who are leaving."

The labor dispute is now before Congress. If Congress takes no action in 60 days, the FAA can impose its last contract offer on union members.

The union wants controller salaries to average $145,300 by the end of the new contract period. The FAA says this would drive the incentive bonus-driven salaries for controllers in major markets such as New York and Chicago to more than $190,000.

"We can give controllers big raises or we can pay for safety improvements in the air traffic system that the public both wants and deserves," said FAA spokesman Geoffrey Basye.

But McCormick predicted that without incentives, the FAA won't be able to find controllers to work at airports with the highest traffic volumes.

According to the agency, average controller salaries at TIA now are slightly more than $128,000, while local firefighters average $38,000, police officers average $46,000 and elementary school teachers average $42,600.

"Everybody wants to be in Tampa," said McCormick. "Nice place to work, good place to live. But it's not going to be nice when we're trying to run air traffic through here with half the controllers we're authorized for."