Somebody at the FAA has a rather finely honed sense of irony. They decided that Labor Day was a good occasion to put the screws on Air Traffic Controllers and their union, NATCA, by unilaterally imposing a contract that contains significant wage and work rule concessions (see AvWeb's story and NATCA's press release). The FAA has said for some time that they would do this after declaring an impasse in contract negotiations last April, but the timing and exact terms were uncertain. In fact, the cuts are deeper than what the FAA told Congress that they'd impose.
The most noteworthy changes to the work rules concern controller fatigue. Until now, controllers have been required to take a break once every two hours of duty time; this has long been recognized as a major factor in keeping controllers sharp over long duty periods at busy facilities, but the FAA deleted this provision. Another huge safety concern is that controllers can no longer declare themselves too fatigued to work. Pilots' unions have long recognized that fatigue is more dangerous than sickness and have fought to extend sick leave policy to fatigue. At my airline, a fatigue call makes you lose pay (you can't use sick time) but at least you're not subject to discipline. I dare say that many pilot unions would strike over fatigue policy because it's such a safety issue.
But NATCA can't strike, because they're federal employees. Recall that when PATCO struck in 1981, Reagan fired them all. So they have no leverage to force the FAA to bargain in good faith, and when the agency decides there's an impasse, NATCA has to accept whatever terms the FAA imposes. It seems to render the union completely moot. This should concern everyone who flies as a pilot or passenger, however they feel about unions, because NATCA has been an important watchdog where aviation safety is concerned. Do you think the FAA will always act in the interest of safety if not forced to? Consider that they had the gumption to impose work rules that increase the risk of controllers working fatigued at the very time that the press is raising questions about the role that controller fatigue may have played in the Lexington crash!
At this point the controllers have very few options. One is CHAOS - to work in such a way that multiple delays are introduced at various points in the system, compounding each other and creating massive gridlock in the air traffic system. If controllers simply started using six or seven miles of separation in situations where they only need three, you'd see massive ground hold delays for "rush hour" arrivals into the nation's busiest airports. While this wouldn't be good for the airlines, it'd at least force the public to look at what the FAA is doing.
Perhaps the most asinine rule change is the new dress code. Controllers have an infamously relaxed wardrobe, which makes perfect sense when your only connection with your "customers" is your voice across the radio. It's much like how many work-from-home entrepreneurs conduct business in their pajamas. The FAA is now requiring controllers to wear a collared shirt & dress slacks. I suspect many controllers will seize on this opportunity to demonstrate their contempt for the new rules foisted upon them. I know a few controllers read this blog - feel free to send pics of the new fashions you see in the cabs & behind the scopes! I'm personally hoping to see at least one pink leotard & feather boa....