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Justice At Last For Air Traffic Controllers
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The long struggle of the nation's air traffic controllers for decent treatment appears to be finally over, the struggle that began in 1981, when President Reagan fired 11,000 controllers for striking and which resumed full force during George Bush's presidency.

The controllers aren't the only ones involved. Millions of airline passengers and employees and many fliers who pilot their own aircraft have faced serious threats to their safety because of what was done by the Bush appointees who ran the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The policies they put in place have kept many air traffic control towers badly understaffed, subjecting the demoralized men and women who operate them to long, fatiguing work shifts with little time to rest. The potential for accidents has been great, the possibility of improperly guided planes smashing into each other in the air or on runways, or going dangerously off course and crashing,

The controllers tried to improve the situation through their union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). But the FAA rejected union demands for improvements during negotiations for a new union contract in 2006, then broke off negotiations and unilaterally imposed new work rules and pay cuts that made the situation even worse.

The rest breaks that had been guaranteed controllers after every two hours of their eye-straining, high-tension work of following aircraft paths across radar screens were eliminated, for instance. And the new rules allowed their bosses to order controllers to work overtime, however fatigued or stressed they might be.

Not surprisingly, the controllers' morale neared rock-bottom. FAA surveys indicated that two-thirds of them were unhappy with how the agency was being managed. What's more, controllers filed more than 280,000 formal grievances charging the FAA with violating their union rights.

The number of controllers, about 15,000 when Bush took office, has steadily declined at the same time that air traffic has steadily increased. More than 2,600 controllers have resigned. The result, says NATCA, has been "massive fatigue" among the remaining controllers who've had to take on extra workloads, including 10-hour shifts and six-day workweeks. Some control towers have had to be shut down for hours at a time for lack of controllers.

Bush's FAA rejected repeated calls by the controllers' union to resume contract negotiations or at least submit to mediation, and Bush threatened to veto any legislation that would have required the agency to resume negotiations.

President Obama's FAA quickly rescinded the onerous conditions imposed by Bush's appointees and reached agreement on new work rules in negotiations with NATCA. Other contract terms, including pay rates, were reached this summerthrough mutually agreed-to mediation and arbitration. The new three-year contract, approved overwhelmingly by controllers, went into effect Oct. 1.

The agreement allows much more flexibility in setting work schedules, a new system for resolving controllers' grievances, and other gains, including adjustments in a wage system that paid new hires nearly one-third less than those already on the job. That had caused friction among controllers and gave the FAA a great incentive to force veteran controllers out in favor of cheaper newcomers.

A quick agreement was essential, the FAA and the controllers' union said in a joint statement, "to stabilize the workforce, effectively train the large number of new hires and keep the current system safe and efficient."

Close cooperation between the parties will especially be needed to develop what Obama's FAA Administrator, Randy Babbiitt, cites as a "much-needed next- generation aviation system."

Also very much needed is "rebuilding trust between the FAA and its employees" that's been absent for more than a quarter-century.

Copyright 2009 Dick Meister