FAA: A New Beginning?

For the first time in three years Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) air traffic controllers will have a real ratified contract on October 1st.

Since Labor Day of 2006 controllers have been working under imposed work rules that FAA management took every opportunity to call a “contract”.

This is also the same FAA who decided to start referring to the airlines it’s supposed to regulate and oversee as “customers.”  Ever heard the expression “the customer is always right”?  FAA management decided this was true for a while to the detriment of safety in the system, and recently reversed course due to outside pressures after some very public disclosures of safety violations from whistleblowers within the FAA.

Now that the controllers will have a real contract, the question is going to be whether or not FAA management can make the adjustment to actually working collaboratively with the experts who make the air traffic system work:  the air traffic controllers.

Under the imposed work rules all negotiations about working conditions were done at a national level.  That means negotiations with the union and its controllers concerning working conditions virtually ground to a stop.

And the working conditions at the various FAA facilities throughout the country suffered.  Each facility has its own unique work issues and the “one size fits all” mentality that the FAA took just didn’t work.

The new ratified contract puts negotiations over working conditions back to the respective facilities, where it should be.  This will allow management and the union to establish working conditions tailored to the facilities.

But that also means the FAA managers at the various facilities are now going to be tasked with making some decisions again.  No more will they be allowed to send the issues up the line and wait for direction.  For the past three years managers have received raises and bonuses for simply taking marching orders from above (while veteran air traffic controllers’ wages were frozen).

Now those same managers are going to actually have to negotiate with the union and make their own decisions about working conditions and procedures at their facilities.

The problem is that most FAA facility managers don’t want to make any decisions whatsoever.

Air traffic control is a job that requires one be willing to accept a great deal of personal responsibility, and make frequent real-time decisions with potentially significant consequences.  Success at working air traffic is related to managing time, prioritizing and making optimal decisions.

FAA managers come from the air traffic controller workforce.  Most of them weren’t very good and/or comfortable at working traffic, because they weren’t good at the aforementioned basics.

The new contract is going to require those managers at the facilities start making decisions again:  something most of them have been avoiding since they became managers and they’ve been honing to a fine edge for the past three years.

Recently our operations managers recognized a supervisor (now called “Front Line Managers”) staffing imbalance between the six operational areas.  Some areas had extra supervisors and some were short supervisors.

In the past when there was a controller imbalance between the areas the routine was to first ask for controllers to transfer areas voluntarily, then if that didn’t solve the problem controllers were forced (by lowest seniority first) from the areas with extra controllers to the understaffed area.

So logically one would think the operations managers would take the same approach: first asking supervisors to move voluntarily from the over-staffed areas to the under-staffed areas, then forcing supervisors to move if there weren’t enough volunteers.

But our operations managers instead decided to send this decision down to the supervisors for a vote.  Their decision regarding the supervisor staffing problem was to not make a decision.

They opted to let the supervisors decide if they wanted the operations managers to make the decision to balance the supervisor staffing imbalance or if the all supervisors would be allowed to bid by seniority on any area in the building, well knowing that the supervisors would be inclined to ask for a facility wide bid instead of sending the problem back to them for a decision.

This the “take-charge” “leading from where you are” attitude of FAA managers.  Whenever possible they will try to avoid making any decisions whatsoever, and the FAA of the past three years has actually enabled them (and in fact encouraged and rewarded them) to do precisely that.

Today the managers at the various FAA facilities are more averse than ever to making decisions.

But the new contract is going to require that they start getting involved in decision-making again.

It will be an uphill battle.

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