Turbulence in the control tower

A plane flies past the control tower at Salt Lake City International Airport.

KAI RYSSDAL: Delta Airlines got a big break today. Its pilots union voted to give back 280 million dollars a year in pay and benefits. Management says it's a key step toward the number three U.S. carrier getting out of bankruptcy. Airlines are on the mend. But the industry itself might soon have a different problem. Air traffic controllers and the Federal Aviation Administration have been at the bargaining table for nine months now. And neither side is ready to budge. Eric Niiler takes a look at the showdown.


ERIC NIILER: Back in 1981, 13,000 air traffic controllers walked off the job, and President Ronald Reagan fired nearly all of them. Today, nobody's talking about a strike, but trouble is brewing and there's no solution in sight. Here's how the union portrays its side on recent TV ads:

TV AD: America's air traffic control system faces a staffing crisis, and now the administration wants to impose a contract that would drastically cut controller pay.

FAA administrator Marion Blakey declared a negotiating impasse on April 5th. That sent the dispute over to Congress. Union official Ruth Marlin says the FAA's last offer would cut starting salaries and incentives for experienced controllers. She said government negotiators have been obstinate.

RUTH MARLIN: The primary issue is the impasse itself. They're refusing to even listen.

The agency says its offer would actually raise total compensation for most controllers. Spokesman Geoff Bayse said the FAA needs more money to modernize the clogged air control system with new satellite technologies.

GEOFF BAYSE: You start talking about the resources that we need to do that, but you see labor costs eating up 80 percent of our operating budget.

Congress has had 60 days to find an answer, but somehow it just hasn't gotten around to it. All those replacement controllers hired back in 1981 are now reaching retirement age. And they make take a pension instead of a lower salary. Airline expert Duncan Jenkins was paid by the union to look at how retirement could affect your travel.

DUNCAN JENKINS: With fewer controllers we're going to see more delays. The air traffic system is set up so that anytime a controller is overworked they just simply hold planes on the ground.

FAA spokesman Bayse says that's just a union scare tactic, and that no controllers have given notice. Congressman Steve LaTourette is an Ohio Republican. He says he's concerned about even the possibility of them leaving.

REP. STEVE LATOURETTE: This is first and foremost a labor dispute and so I don't want to make it bigger than it is, but you will see retirements of senior level air traffic controllers and I don't know how you replace that experience.

Under federal law, the FAA can impose its last contract offer on Monday. Congressman LaTourette's proposed bill would block that move and force the two sides back to the bargaining table. It's scheduled for a special floor vote next week.

In Washington, I'm Eric Niiler for Marketplace.

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