NATCA and FAA Remarks on Collaboration Between Labor and Management
Friday, July 26, 2013

Below are the full remarks, as prepared for delivery, from NATCA Executive Vice President Trish Gilbert and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta at Tuesday’s (July 23) Association of Labor Relations Agencies (ALRA) panel discussion, “Why Labor-Management Forum Cooperation Works.”


Thank you Chairman DuBester (Ernie DuBester, panel moderator and chairman of the Federal Labor Relations Authority) and ALRA for hosting this event and inviting NATCA.

As Administrator Huerta has described, we have had a significant climate change in the relationship between NATCA and the FAA. That has opened up a lot of opportunities for the parties to achieve positive results. Previously, going it alone—or worse, against each other—was yielding poor results for both of our organizations and not producing positive mutual benefits for the National Airspace System.

Grievances aren’t always the best measure of a relationship, but they can definitely tell you when something is wrong. To jump back to what we refer to as the “lost years,” when the FAA unilaterally imposed work and pay rules on the controller workforce there were half-a-million grievances invoked for arbitration. Think about how broken a relationship must be for the parties to have half-a-million cases pending arbitration with a controller workforce of only 15,000.

To put whole thing into perspective, before the “lost years” we enjoyed what we considered, at the time, the best collaborative and problem solving years, or the “Green Book” years. Over a three-year period, we typically had over 1,600 cases that reached the arbitration stage. 

Since October of 2009, when our current contract went into effect, we’ve had just over 1,000 cases invoked for arbitration (in a four year period). On a per-month basis, that’s half the cases compared to the “Green Book” years when we believed we had achieved labor peace and partnership. Clearly we hadn’t. 

Fortunately, we learned from both the “Green Book and lost years” how to build a true collaborative environment. One of the things we had to do when we began our new relationship was to dig out from the past. We created a special grievance procedure to deal with that huge backlog of cases, and after three years we put them all to bed. That helped build trust as NATCA evaluated the merits of each case and withdrew those that were not meritorious, jointly settled thousands, and then put forth our best arguments through an expedited process for those that required a third party’s opinion.  We also were able to firewall our day-to-day interactions and collaborative process/training that were instituting from the teams that had to resolve the difficult issues from the past.

The Administrator spoke about ERAM already, and that’s been one of the biggest examples of our joint success, but it goes well beyond that.

We extended the 2009 CBA without any fanfare or teams going to the table. The extension includes a change to how we deal with annual pay adjustments – something that has bogged us down in negotiations over all of our previous negotiations.

And, we’ve worked on countless programs to update and modernize the National Airspace System as well as improve upon our mutual goal of having the best, most professional air traffic control workforce in the world.

The unprecedented collaboration and cooperation between NATCA and the FAA, particularly within NextGen or modernization of the national airspace system, has set a new industry standard. The number of programs NATCA is now part of is impressive and truly speaks to the FAA’s and NATCA’s efforts to improve safety through collaboration. All of NATCA’s bargaining units are either involved as reps, subject matter experts, operational support and engineering. 

Core projects like ERAM and Terminal Automation Modernization and Replacement (TAMR), along with numerous other modernization programs have benefitted greatly under the improved relationship.

In addition to our involvement in those core technology advances, NATCA works to directly impact a number of other programs: ADS-B, DataComm, CDM, PBN, Wake Turbulence Recategorization, Automated Terminal Proximity Alert (ATPA), Terminal Flight Data Management, Time Based Flow Management, Traffic Flow Management System, NAS Voice Switch (NVS), Optimization of Airspace and Procedures through the Metroplex (OAPM) among others. 

NATCA contributes to software development and testing, and recently, we have continued to push forward and meet deadlines in many areas despite setbacks from sequestration.  Unfortunately the difficult budget backdrop is impacting so many areas.  

The collaboration and cooperation that has set such a strong working platform for these modernization systems transcends the technology domain. The implementation of the many programs and procedures at facilities across the country has built lasting models for union-management partnership.

As the Administrator spoke to, the FAA has matured and the blame culture has given way to a true safety culture. 

One result of this has been the Air Traffic Safety Action Program (ATSAP), a voluntary, non-punitive, confidential safety reporting system that empowers the workforce to be proactive and play a direct role in safety. 

FAA and NATCA signed the MOU in 2008, and the program is now in all FAA air traffic facilities. Three-person committees with representatives from the Air Traffic Organization, NATCA and the Air Traffic Safety Oversight Service review each reported event. The reviewers focus on why the reported mistake or event happened, not who made it. They identify system deficiencies and the need for corrective action.

Over 70,000 reports have been submitted since the program’s nationwide inception in 2008, resulting in hundreds of systemic corrections to the NAS. These safety improvements not only affect NATCA’s air traffic controllers, but both commercial and general aviation pilots, airlines and airport personnel. 

Examples of improvements include:
  • Making call signs of airport vehicles in Albuquerque more distinctive to avoid confusion; 
  • Resolving conflicts between the Department of Homeland Security border patrol aircraft and other aircraft;
  • Extending primary radar coverage to the Vero Beach area of Miami Center; 
  • Resolving an automated routing glitch at Dulles Airport resulting in a more efficient workload for controllers and cost savings to the users; 
  • And increasing efficiency and enhancing safety between Philadelphia and JFK International Airports.

For the first time in history, NATCA and the FAA have also collaboratively instituted a National Professional Standards Program for air traffic controllers and other safety related professionals within the FAA. 

Program development began in 2010 to compliment and support ATSAP, with the goal of promoting and maintaining the highest degree of professional conduct among the workforce while also monitoring performance, maintaining accountability and recognizing examples of exceptional professionalism.

The Professional Standards team, consisting of three NATCA representatives and their FAA counterparts, completed the program rollout for air traffic BUEs in February this year. There are now 487 trained Professional Standards Committee members from all 314 FAA air traffic facilities working on issues.

The program continues to be enormously successful, with just under 800 cases submitted to date, and nearly 720 reported as resolved.

The ability to address issues at a peer-to-peer level is showing itself to be effective. Whether it is a submission from a BUE or from a Management Official as an alternative to traditional Agency action, those issues processed and resolved have never reoccurred.
As part of the pro-standards work, NATCA and the FAA created a workgroup to proactively address distractions in the workplace, with a high focus on electronics, and find a way to eliminate them.  Now known as “Turn Off, Tune In,” the awareness campaign asks everyone in the operations environment to “Turn Off” distractions and “Tune In” to safety.

This educational campaign kicked off in March 2013 at NATCA’s annual safety conference, and was met by an overwhelmingly positive response.

The campaign even received a strong endorsement from National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman, who praised NATCA and the FAA for our continued dedication to excellence.

Another collaborative goal of ours was fatigue mitigation. Had we not committed time and a tremendous amount of effort in repairing our relationship, we may not have been able to appropriately deal with fatigue in our work environment.

NATCA and the FAA began working collaboratively in 2009 to aggressively address fatigue issues by forming a Fatigue Risk Management Working Group.

When fatigue issues became very public in the spring of 2011, we were poised to effectively begin addressing them.  

The working group identified ways to reduce fatigue among the controller workforce in order to increase the safety of the National Airspace System and improve the health and well being of the workforce. The Group’s work culminated with the presentation of a dozen recommendations to the FAA, which were implemented with an agreement signed and announced in July 2011.

In 2012, the FAA and NATCA signed an agreement to implement a Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS), a key recommendation from the fatigue-working group. It analyzes, identifies and recommends mitigation strategies for fatigue risks. 

The FRMS includes representatives from three stakeholders: NATCA, the FAA and the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS). They work together to prioritize issues brought forward by the Fatigue Risk Management Team.

NATCA and the FAA have put a strong emphasis on raising each safety employee’s awareness of fatigue. To this end, each employee was required this year to complete a three-and-a-half hour training program that addressed fatigue, its effects and how to manage personal fatigue risks in a 24/7 operation.

The framework is a key component of the FAA’s move to a true safety culture and will guide the next steps of the process moving forward.

Our current relationship means we’re not spending as much time arguing about work rules, creating an environment more conducive to joint respect and trust. This allows us to spend our time working on issues that jointly benefit our members and the Agency’s mission.

We see the benefits of collaboration every day, and look forward to continuing to move forward in this manner for the betterment of the NAS and the professionals who maintain it. 

Thank you.


Thank you for the introduction, Ernie, and for giving some history and perspective.

We’re here today to talk about best practices for how to improve working relationships between management and labor. 

As you know, the FAA is not only a regulatory agency, but we’re also an operational agency. We run the nation’s air traffic control system. Our mission is safety, and we think about it 24 hours a day.

We have made significant progress in improving relations with our workforce in the last several years and we know this is the best way to enhance safety. We are working with air traffic controllers, pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and dispatchers. We are encouraging everyone to voluntarily report safety information that may help identify potential precursors to accidents. 

We are using corrective action and training before punishment or discipline to solve the problems in our system. This isn’t about blame—this is about having the professionalism and practices in place that let us know where problems exist so we can come together to try to resolve them. Our safety culture is dependent on people being able to say anything without fear of reprisal. You should be able to raise your hand and say, “Hey, this isn’t working.” That’s even if your boss came up with the idea. By working together and being open, we have a chance to draw on everyone’s expertise to address problems. This is very important for our success. 

Another very positive result of improving relations with labor is that things just run better.  Good labor relations make everything better. 

At the FAA, we meet regularly with our unions through a labor-management forum that is attended by the top leadership of the FAA and representatives of our labor unions. We focus on setting a tone that will help facilitate a culture change and encourage collaboration throughout the agency. Members of my senior leadership team and I also meet with the leaders of individual unions to discuss and work on issues of concern to particular unions. In this way, we model collaboration from the top down.
We’re walking the talk on collaboration, and it’s helping improve the agency. 

One example is our experience rolling out an extremely complex software platform that we use to control high altitude air traffic across the country. 

This program is called En Route Automation Modernization, or ERAM.  And it’s one of the foundations for transforming our entire air traffic system from radar to satellites. Our Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, depends on it. 

NextGen is extremely ambitious and vital to meeting our air space demands for the coming decades. So ERAM is very important because it serves as a foundation for NextGen. 

Early on, we did not have the involvement of the people who were going to use this software system on a daily basis. As a result, we experienced some setbacks in the program. We changed the way we evaluated the software and we did this by reaching out and involving our field operations people as collaborators.

Air traffic controllers and managers across the country have been working together as our partners in testing the ERAM system and helping us decide the next steps. Our relationship with the field is much stronger than it was at the beginning.  The pay-off has been that people are gravitating to ERAM and getting more comfortable with it. 

We are using it at high altitude control centers in half of the country now, which is significant progress. When you stop and ask the people who are going to use a product how they feel about it and whether it’s working, you get some very direct and important feedback. 

We’ve taken this same lesson in workforce collaboration and are using it with other NextGen advancements, such as creating satellite-based routes that help relieve congestion over busy metropolitan areas. 

Our Metroplex initiative has brought together all of our stakeholders – airports, airlines, our air traffic controllers, managers and other federal agencies to create new and more direct routes that will relieve congestion and improve safety and efficiency.  These improvements are underway in north Texas and Houston, northern and southern California, Atlanta, Charlotte, and right here in Washington, D.C. 

Again, the key was creating a collaborative work process much earlier in the timeline.  Rather than one group writing the procedures and another group checking to see if they are environmentally sound and then rolling them out to the controllers at the end, these groups are working together at the same time. It’s a much more efficient process. 

These are just some examples of how the FAA has improved collaboration with our labor force, and how this collaboration has enhanced safety and improved efficiency. 

Although it is obvious, I must say that the success we have had in accomplishing our mission at the FAA is possible only because we have excellent labor partners. We are an agency with a total of 47,000 employees – 36,000 of them are organized for collective bargaining in eight different national unions. Trish Gilbert is here with me on the stage and her union represents more than half of the FAA’s unionized employees. I want to especially acknowledge the outstanding partnership we have with NATCA. Union leaders and the employees they represent are committed to the agency’s success and demonstrate it every day.

I will close my remarks by saying that collaboration requires time and effort. However, it is an investment that experience has taught us improves the labor-management relationship. It promotes employee engagement and satisfaction, and produces high quality results to accomplish our mission.