"Advocates Day: Labor Relations in Transformational Times: Complex Issues – Best Practice Solutions"
Michael Huerta, Washington, DC
July 23, 2013

ALRA 62nd Annual Conference (Association of Labor Relations Agencies)


Reamrks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you for the introduction, Ernie (DuBester), 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 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 tovoluntarily 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.  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.

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