Ruling requires more tech workers to keep airport systems humming
The Federal Aviation Administration must comply with an arbiter's ruling to meet minimum staffing requirements for the agency's systems specialists at every airport nationwide, according to Federal Labor Relations Board officials.
In an Aug. 26 decision, the board said the FAA must have a staff of at least 6,100 workers who maintain the electronic systems used by air controllers. The systems include computers, communication equipment and various ground-based radar systems that pilots and flight service stations use.
Members of the Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS), the union representing 11,000 workers that filed the grievance, accused the FAA of implementing a new nationwide air traffic control system without a transition period or proper staff.
Ideally, new technology allows organizations to reduce staff. But this system, the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System, "was not as mature as advertised," making staff cuts a mistake, said Mike Perrone, PASS' national vice president.
FAA officials disagreed, reflecting a significant rift between how management and organized labor perceive the staffing levels.
"The system has never handled more traffic nor operated more safely than it does today," said Greg Martin, an FAA spokesman. "We will make sure that we have the right number of people in the right place at the right time to make sure it stays that way."
Managers often do not understand the pressures of their employees' work, said Lowell Turner, a professor of collective bargaining and international and comparative labor at Cornell University. "It's a classic conflict, especially in an era of cost-cutting," he said.
He said issues of workplace rights and staffing levels are some of the most common disputes, following right behind health benefits and wage conflicts. Turner said the pendulum has swung away from the days of featherbedding, in which organizations would agree to hire more staff than needed for particular jobs.
Often managers don't want to see the problem, Turner said, especially when it involves employees who work behind the scenes, such as systems specialists.
Perrone said workers are in limbo right now because the specialists are not always available. "The controllers are not used to" the technology, he said. "They have more questions and problems, and we're not there, so therefore you have the potential for more delays."
But agency officials have a different perspective. The new technology has a transition period, Martin said, but he added that "the union's call for more staffing is pretty predictable."
The broader implications of widespread staffing shortfalls — not just among
systems specialists — in the nation's airports may become critical
in a few years when a wave of retirements
begins. The looming shortage of air traffic controllers has large-
ly overshadowed what systems specialists identify as a comparable problem among their ranks.
"What we're saying is that until that equipment is more mature, you need to have the people on board to maintain it," Perrone said.
As Bush administration officials increasingly outsource federal jobs, retired specialist Hank Zaniewski said, some
specialist jobs are contracted out, but the work is mostly performed by retired
FAA technicians. "This enables the contractor to undercut the government cost," he said.
But even this may dry up, Zaniewski said. If maintenance is completely contracted out, "those without a retirement check to fall back on will look elsewhere rather than perform the exacting duties of a systems specialist for little more than an airport screener's salary."
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