You have to hand it to the
National Air Traffic Controllers Association: Few groups have
fought harder get an exorbitant pay increase on the taxpayers'
It began in September 2005, when the existing contract between the
Federal Aviation Administration and the controllers expired and
discussions over its replacement got underway. With the average
controller compensation now at $166,000 per year, the FAA hoped to
slow the growth of any future costs.
But after eight months of fruitless negotiations with the
controllers' union, the FAA declared an impasse and, as the law
requires, sent its final wage-and-benefit offer to Congress for
review. Unless Congress disapproves the contract within 60 days,
FAA's final offer will be the compensation package governing
controller salaries for the next five years.
Under the FAA's final offer, total controller compensation would
rise to $187,000, in contrast to the more than $200,000 the
controllers had been demanding. As a result of this and other
differences in the contracts, taxpayers would save $600 million if
the FAA's contract were adopted.
Incredibly, a bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives
is siding with the controllers in their effort to force taxpayers
to provide them with one of the most generous pay and benefit
packages available to any group of American workers. Led by Reps.
Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) and Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), these
members want to force the issue to a vote on the House floor
through an obscure legislative device called a "discharge
petition." They hope to force the issue into arbitration to give
the controllers another chance to get their pay package closer to
the $200,000 they've been demanding.
Since 1996, controllers have been one of the few groups of federal
employees empowered to negotiate pay, benefits and work rules with
the government. Base pay for the nation's 14,500 air-traffic
controllers leaped 75 percent in the seven years following 1996. In
2005, the average controller made $128,000 per year in cash
compensation -- more than $166,000 when benefits are included. And
1,300 veteran controllers made more than $200,000 per year.
Now, their contract is up, and they want more. Lots more. The union
seeks a contract that would cost taxpayers and the beleaguered
airline industry an extra $2 billion over the life of the contract.
It featured an 18 percent increase that would take average cash
compensation to $151,000 and total compensation to more than
$200,000 by the last year of the contract.
It's stressful work, the controllers say. Besides, the importance
of ensuring the safety of millions of passengers justifies their
demands for such generous compensation. Indeed, compensation should
be commensurate with the skills and effort expected of
But the question is: Are air-traffic controllers, at $128,000 cash
pay per year, truly that much more critical to our safety than fire
chiefs ($79,000), airline mechanics ($45,000), police officers
($45,000), flight attendants ($43,000) or firefighters
Believing that the big spenders in Congress would bail them out,
the controllers' union dragged its feet during the eight months of
negotiation and forced the impasse. But what they failed to
consider was the unwillingness of the House leadership to cave into
excessive wage demands and its view that the FAA's final offer was
more than generous. Under that offer, cash pay would rise to an
average of $140,000 over the five-year contract, total compensation
would climb to $187,000 and a new pay tier would be created for new
With the June 5 deadline looming, the House leadership is certain
to muster the will to turn back the discharge-petition plan. And
with a new contract in place, Congress should then begin to work
with the FAA to set about copying the myriad other nations that
have improved air-traffic control service and reduced costs by
privatizing and/or commercializing all or part of the industry.
America no longer can afford for its aviation-control system to
operate in the warm and generous embrace of a government
The FAA already has had some success with privatizing operations.
It privatized 187 "Level 1" towers -- those that handle the least
traffic -- before the 1998 contract and saved $250,000 per tower
per year. The remaining 71 "Level 1" towers could be privatized as
well, with savings estimated at $881,000 per tower per year. That's
$63 million a year saved and nothing lost in terms of
Air-traffic controllers have overplayed their hand before in
negotiations with the government. Ronald Reagan, the only former
union head ever to serve as president, famously busted PATCO soon
after taking office. This time around, government won't have to
start from scratch if an agreement can't be reached. It's time the
unions and their allies in Congress realize this.
Utt is the Herbert and
Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow in the Roe Institute for
Economic Policy Studies.