May 21--In August 1981, the nation's airlines, already battered by a recession, faced the grim prospect that air traffic controllers would shut down air travel if their demands for better pay and work rules weren't met.
Those fears were realized when 12,000 union workers went on strike and were fired days later by President Ronald W. Reagan. The outcome was a turning point for the fortunes of organized labor and also fulfilled the airlines' fears: Flight delays and losses were common for years due to short staffing and as new controllers learned the ropes.
Now, a quarter-century later, history threatens to repeat itself.
The Federal Aviation Administration is battling with the replacement controllers over many of the same issues. While no strike is being considered, a stalemate threatens again to hamper aviation, which is going through economic pangs in spite of record numbers of air travelers.
"It's quite a game of chicken," said Robert Mark, a controller before the 1981 strike and an FAA supervisor after. "The traveling public probably remembers sitting on an airplane in Washington or Kansas City or Los Angeles and hearing that it can't go anywhere because the air controllers were on strike. Nobody wants that again, but the same stuff is at stake."
The concern now is how many of the 14,000 controllers will choose to retire if they don't like the provisions of their new contract. The FAA says it is training new workers and is prepared. But the controllers say there aren't enough replacements in the pipeline for technical and stressful positions that require years of on-the-job training.
Now, as then, the debate centers on pay and work rules.
The controllers' union wants pay to match the longer days, as airplane departures have more than doubled since the early 1980s to 11.5 million. It also wants a continuation of extra pay for supervising or working in the busiest airports.
The FAA wants to rein in pay increases that have far outpaced inflation and use the money to upgrade technology.
Average annual pay for air traffic controllers is about $113,000. In 1981, when the controllers union struggled to muster public support, average pay was $33,000 (or about $80,000 adjusted for today's dollars). With the two sides at an impasse, Congress has until June 5 to impose a solution or the FAA's latest proposal will take effect.
Lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced bills to force arbitration, against the wishes of the FAA and the airline industry's trade association, which said cuts are needed to finance a modern aviation system. With both sides accusing the other of abandoning negotiations, public appeals have followed.
The controllers as a group haven't been much in the public eye in 25 years, with the exception of Sept. 11, 2001, when the FAA grounded flights immediately after the hijackings.
Last week, the controllers handed out leaflets to travelers at airports across the country, including Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
The controllers say the FAA contract makes it more attractive to retire and take benefits while they are at their peak, rather than suffer potential cuts in pay, forced overtime and less vacation.
They say there already are shortages of controllers - overtime pay grew to $43 million last year, from about $27 million in 1999, according to the FAA - and between 3,000 and 4,000 controllers are eligible to retire by the end of next year. Overtime pay has pushed some top controllers' salaries close to $200,000, the FAA said.
A matter of pay
The pay is the main reason FAA officials say they expect no more than 1,100 controllers to retire regardless of the contract.
Many are eligible to retire after 20 years on the job and must leave at age 56. About 500 have studied at the FAA academy in Oklahoma City this year and others are studying in college programs or seeking to move from military controller assignments, the FAA said.
"We don't think they'll leave hundreds of thousands on the table just to make a point," said Geoff Basye, a FAA spokesman. "Saying the contract will cause mass retirements is a scare tactic."The FAA reports that labor makes up 80 percent of its operating budget of $2.4 billion, up from $1.4 billion in 1998. A new contract struck that year gave controllers a 75 percent raise over five years, which was on top of the 50 percent raises given to other federal workers who were seeking parity with private-sector jobs.
If the FAA can slow the payroll growth, it can invest in a more efficient satellite-based traffic management computer system, the agency says. Basye, the FAA spokesman, said there is no timetable for the upgrades.
And a recent report from the Government Accountability Office said the FAA faces challenges in implementing a new system - among them the prospect that it would need to hire thousands of air traffic controllers.
The new contract calls for paying recruits $31,000 to start, with the salary nearly tripling in five years. Raises for existing workers would grow at a small fraction of that rate, Basye said.
Darryl Jenkins, an aviation consultant, who prepared a report on potential consequences of the FAA's proposed contract for controllers, said the FAA does need new technology but it also needs controllers.
Jenkins said a conservative estimate is that 15 percent of controllers will retire in the next five years, but the number will be higher if the FAA imposes its contract. And he said the agency isn't doing a good job of hiring.
"It's amazing how little has changed," he said. "The FAA still can't get along with its labor. If history is any guide, the issues again will be delays and costs, passed on to consumers in the form of higher fares."
In 1981, the controllers were led by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, a union that decided a strike was needed to win concessions. President Reagan said the controllers were not legally allowed to strike and fired those who did not return to their jobs in 48 hours, which was the bulk of them.
The FAA and President Reagan believed they could use the mass exodus to transform the agency. The plan then also was to modernize the system with automation, rather than replacing all of the controllers. The current FAA leadership acknowledges that did not happen and blamed past administrations. Critics said funding was wasted.
As the union was being decertified, military controllers and FAA supervisors, as well as some controllers who chose not to strike or came out of retirement, kept air traffic from completely shutting down until new controllers could be trained.
Federal controllers in airport towers typically manage airplane traffic within five to seven miles from an airport by communicating with pilots and monitoring such things as radar and weather systems. Ground crews that help airplanes in and out of the gates are employed by the airlines.
Jenkins, the consultant, said the 1981 labor crisis came with a price. Planes that normally were spaced about five miles apart were spaced 50 miles apart to ensure safety. The government didn't track delays at the time, but runway backups and cancellations were common, Jenkins said. For the airlines, losses mounted and layoffs followed.
Some similarities echo across the 25 years. While the economy is stronger today than in 1981, the airline industry is just as fragile as it copes with high fuel prices and intense competition.
The impact could resonate at BWI.
Seven of 26 controllers there will be eligible to retire next year and 17 will be eligible over the five-year length of the proposed FAA contract, controllers said.
"A lack of experience will cause delays," said John Dunkerly, who has been at BWI nearly half of his 20 years as a controller and is a leader in the controllers' successor union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Even if the trainees are going through the academy, years of regional training are necessary, he said.
BWI spokesman Jonathan Dean said airport officials are "confident that the FAA has a plan to provide the necessary positions."
One of those controllers eligible to retire in August, Kemp Dawson, 50, said he'd like to stay for six more years because he likes his job and because he has three kids to put through college.
But he said it's more than a financial issue and he hasn't made up his mind if he'll stay or go. He fears new work rules could mean a change in shifts, or unpredictable shifts.
"It's unsettling for everyone," he said.