Congress should set the floor on paid leave
Proposed employee retirement benefit cuts would hurt air traffic controllers, aviation industry
America's air traffic controllers are deeply committed to safety and are proud that the U.S. National Airspace System (NAS) is the world's safest, most efficient, most complex, and most diverse. Nearly 1 billion passengers fly each year. Their safe and expeditious travel through our system, as well as the millions of tons of freight cargo that is transported by aviation through the NAS, drive the $1.5 trillion that aviation contributes to the U.S. economy annually.
Air traffic controllers are highly trained professionals who safely manage air travel 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They're also always ready to respond to emergency situations such as last month's Southwest Airlines flight that suffered an engine failure and cabin depressurization and last week's severe storms in the East and Mid-Atlantic regions.
Controllers continue to perform these essential duties while working shorthanded due to a years-long staffing crisis. The number of fully certified controllers is at its lowest level in three decades after dropping by almost 1,000 since 2013. There is a risk that this sustained staffing crisis will lead to reduced capacity, meaning more flight delays. The staffing crisis also hurts the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) ability to develop new technology and modernize the system, while at the same time restricting the ability of veteran controllers from training newly hired developmental controllers.
Although the FAA has made hiring a priority in recent years, nearly one out of every five controllers is eligible to retire today. And if they believed their retirement benefits were in jeopardy, many of these retirement eligible controllers could decide to retire before mandatory age-56 retirement. For this reason, the Office of Personnel Management's (OPM) proposed cuts to federal employee retirement benefits are deeply concerning because they could motivate retirement-eligible controllers to end their careers sooner than anticipated.
OPM recently sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) with a legislative proposal from the administration that negatively affects federal employee retirement benefits, including air traffic controller retirement. It proposes to: (1) eliminate the Social Security annuity supplement; (2) increase federal employee Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS) retirement contributions 1 percent per year until the contributions reach 7.25 percent; (3) reduce Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) by 0.5 percent each year and eliminate COLAs for FERS for all current and future retirees; and (4) modify the CSRS and FERS annuity calculations to be based on an employee's high-5 years rather than the current high-3 year calculation. NATCA vigorously opposes these proposals and any legislation that would attack federal employee wages and benefits.
For the past two years, these and other similar attacks have been in the president's budget proposal. The administration and Congress should not try to balance the federal budget on the backs of federal employees, including controllers, by cutting to their wages and benefits. Each of the administration's proposed cuts would result in reduced take-home pay for federal employees. Most significantly, eliminating the Social Security annuity supplement disproportionately affects controllers, federal law enforcement officers (LEOs), and federal firefighters and could cause a large wave of unanticipated retirements that would exacerbate the controller staffing crisis and cripple the NAS. Controllers, LEOs, and firefighters are subject to mandatory retirement, so eliminating COLAs affects them more than other federal retirees as well, because their retirement begins earlier.
FAA employees are essential to the safety and efficiency of the NAS. Congress should not target them for cost savings. Instead, we need years of sustained hiring and successful training to begin to resolve the controller staffing crisis. We also need a stable, predictable funding stream for the FAA that adequately supports staffing, hiring, and training.
Paul Rinaldi is president of National Air Traffic Controllers Association.