Air Traffic Controllers Grounded for Lunch by FAA

Oct. 11, 2006
Under a new FAA policy, imposed as part of a union contract on Sept. 3, controllers nationwide are not allowed to leave their workplaces during an eight-hour shift.

As far as air traffic controllers are concerned, the Federal Aviation Administration is out to lunch.

They only wish they could go out, as well.

Under a new FAA policy, imposed as part of a union contract on Sept. 3, controllers nationwide are not allowed to leave their workplaces during an eight-hour shift. Previously, they could head out for 30 minutes with a supervisor's approval.

The FAA said the measure is necessary to ensure controllers are in immediate position to oversee air traffic. Also, the agency said it had liability concerns, for instance, if a controller were to leave the premises and get in a car crash while on duty.

The new rule has about 135 South Florida controllers, and their stomachs, growling.

"The only way we can leave now is if we use 30 minutes of our vacation time," said Jim Marinitti, president of the Miami International Airport Control Tower branch of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

The lunch issue is the latest of several disputes between the controllers and the FAA. Over the years, the two have battled over radar glitches, operational policies and the agency's plans to consolidate controllers in larger complexes; locally, that includes the FAA's intentions to move radar controllers in West Palm Beach to Miami within the next five years.

It was included in contract negotiations that resulted in an impasse in April. When Congress failed to get involved, the FAA by law was permitted to implement the contract's provisions.

To make the rigid lunch-break rule more palatable, agency spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said the FAA provides refrigerators, microwaves and, at some airports, conventional ovens. Food can be ordered in as well.

Shane Ahern, president of the Palm Beach International Airport Control Tower chapter, said while that may sound good, "how much pizza can you order?"

At Miami International, a canteen truck has been authorized to pull up to the control tower a few times a day. But Marinitti said controllers are boycotting it because they don't know if the food is safe.

Ahern and other union officials added the new rule presents a "distraction" at a time when 12 experienced controllers in Miami alone are set to retire this year, making the job difficult for those remaining on.

But the FAA isn't biting on that one. It says it hired 1,100 controllers in the past year and plans to hire 1,136 more this year nationwide to assure staffing levels are more than adequate.

"Safety is our priority," Bergen said, adding controllers have little reason for this latest beef.

She said the 30 minutes set aside for lunch during a controller's 8-hour shift is considered a paid break. Most other federal employees work an 8.5-hour shift that includes an unpaid half-hour break.

She noted that controllers have considerable break time outside of lunch. On average, during an 8-hour shift, controllers at Miami International Airport spend 3 hours and 55 minutes working air traffic; at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International, 5 hours and 15 minutes; and at Palm Beach International, 4 hours 28 minutes.

"The balance of the time is breaks, mealtime and time that can be used for training or briefing," Bergen said.

Marinitti said frequent, short breaks are necessary because of the intensity of air traffic control work.

He said the new rule "really seems to be some sort of retribution against controllers" although federal employees who work in information centers also must stay put.

On the other hand, large employers rarely disallow workers from going out to lunch, said Jeanne Alfaro, president of Hallmark Personnel of Florida, based in Fort Lauderdale. She said it is more common with small shops, with only one or two people and "where's there's absolutely no coverage."

The FAA's new policy is one of several measures imposed under a contract that the 14,600-member controllers' union contested. Others include stiffer sick leave and vacation policies and a dress code that prohibits sneakers.

But it is one of the most controversial.

"Going hungry isn't good," Ahern said. "It makes it seem like our employer doesn't respect us."

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