Saturday, May 10, 2008

Making Sausage (or Hurricanes)

”People who love sausage and respect the law should never watch either of them being made. “

Author Unknown

I assume most of you know that Congress is currently trying to grind out a bill to reauthorize the FAA. Under current law, this happens every five years and it presents lawmakers with an opportunity to tweak how the FAA runs. Among the many changes being sought by various entities this year, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association is trying to fix the language that allowed the Bush Administration to impose a “contract” on air traffic controllers.

The bill in the House is done. It’s been done for several months. The House is waiting on the Senate to pass its version of the bill so the separate bills can go to conference to have the differences worked out. And then there is President Bush. Sooner or later he has to sign something -- or not. He is trying to influence the bill already -- threatening to veto it if it contains this or that.

It’s a long, drawn-out, confusing process that has driven many people around the bend. And controllers (in general) don’t have that far to go. I’ve always thought that this is one of the greatest sources of angst for controllers. Their job requires decisive action within seconds. Their employer deals in ambiguous trends that play out over years.

Controllers aren’t the only ones that have issues they want addressed in this bill (S1300 in the Senate, HR 2881 in the House.) Anybody that has anything to do with aviation wants something. Which means everybody.

In short, the controllers want a third party involved (mediation and/or binding arbitration) if contract talks break down. During the last contract, the Administration drove the contract talks to impasse and then just imposed their rules on the controller workforce -- cutting entry pay 30% and virtually freezing the pay of senior controllers. That of course has given us the current situation where controllers are quitting in record numbers. The FAA “won” the battle and is now busy losing the war. It’s a funny thing about being the boss. You feel all powerful when you’re bossing everyone around. But when there’s no one left to boss around and do the work, you feel (and look) kind of stupid.

I’m not paying real close attention to all the maneuvers but I think they can be summed up in three views. The House bill would reopen the contract negotiations between the FAA and NATCA. President Bush has (of course) threatened to veto that. The moderate Republicans don’t want negotiations reopened but are willing to allow binding arbitration for the next contract. The right-wing Republicans like things just the way they are.

Me ? Well, I voted with my feet. I retired. Every single day the Congress delays addressing this issue costs the system more controllers. Soon, when no one is left to do the work, somebody is going to look (and feel) pretty stupid.

The FAA has already had to reinstate the housing allowance they used to pay trainees at its academy in Oklahoma City. They couldn’t attract enough people to fill the jobs. Because controllers are retiring faster than the FAA projected, they still can’t hire people fast enough and are now offering bonuses for senior controllers to stay. That doesn’t seem to be working either. Just as an example, here’s an interesting story about two controllers retiring and going to work in Dubai.

If that isn’t strange enough for you (would you pick Dubai over Tampa ?) I have a friend from Tampa that just retired too. We’ve known each other since attending the FAA academy together in 1981. His boss wouldn’t let him go to lunch despite having plenty of people on the shift. When my friend offered to take vacation time to go to lunch, the boss approved. During lunch, my friend decided he’d had enough of the foolishness. He ordered a drink, called up his boss and said, “I retire.” Well, I’m pretty sure he said something I’m not going to print but he retired all the same.

Congratulations America. We’ve managed to turn a great career into a Jimmy Buffet song.

” I ain't had a day off now in over a year
My Jamaican vacation's gonna start right here
Get the phones for me
You can tell 'em I just sailed away “

(written by Jim "Moose" Brown and Don Rollins)

You might want to call your Senators and tell them to hurry up. It’s five o’clock somewhere.

Don Brown
May 10, 2008

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