Agreement reached in dispute about overtime for air traffic controllers

Due to a shortage of air traffic controllers employed by Austro Control, delays in flight departures in July disrupted the steadily increasing flight activity at Vienna International Airport, mainly affecting the Austrian national carrier. A dispute broke out between the employee representatives and the management of Austro Control when the former demanded significant reductions in overtime hours, which the employer rejected. In late July 2006, the conflict came to an end when the two parties agreed on a suitable staffing programme and an interim extra payment scheme for overtime work.

During July 2006, a significant shortage of air traffic controllers, employed by Austro Control, at Vienna International Airport caused frequent delays of flight departures. The airline most affected was Austrian (AUA) (the former Austrian Airlines national air carrier, AT0408203F). On several occasions, one out of three of the day’s scheduled flights was considerably delayed due to a lack of departure ‘slots’ allowed by Austro Control for security reasons. According to Austrian’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Alfred Ötsch, the financial costs to the company as a result of these inconveniences amounted to €5.8 million.

Labour dispute at Austro Control

In July 2006, problems emerged when the employees of Austro Control, which is the company responsible for all air traffic control and air safety in Austrian airspace (AT0307203F), refused to maintain their ‘intolerable working conditions’. In particular, they demanded a significant reduction of excessive overtime work. Employee representatives of the air traffic controllers pointed out that, despite continuously increasing flight activity at Vienna’s airport (by more than 10 percentage points during the last two years), the number of air traffic controllers has remained unchanged. In the case of accumulated sickness absence among the controllers – as occurred during the summer of 2006 – the shortage of labour could no longer be compensated by overtime work. Therefore, the employee representatives requested an immediate increase in the current number of 290 controllers (of which about 200 are employed at Vienna International Airport) and additional pay for excessive overtime of up to 45 hours per month.

The management of Austro Control considered additional overtime hours as ‘reasonable’ in order to avert serious financial damage for the company and the maintenance of flight activity. However, pressure from the staff representatives and threats of the Austrian air carrier to sue for damages forced the company’s management to enter negotiations with the employee representatives to settle the labour dispute. Both parties unanimously agreed that, in the case of an acute shortage of personnel, no concessions should be made with respect to flight security matters. Hence, a reduction of capacity in terms of allocated departure slots proved the only possible measure.

Social partner compromise

On 17 July 2006, initial talks between the management of Austro Control and staff representatives organised within the blue-collar Commerce and Transport Union (Gewerkschaft Handel, Transport, Verkehr, HTV) proved unsuccessful. However, in a second negotiating round during the night of 24 to 25 July 2006, the parties involved agreed on a compromise solution, which provides for the following terms:

  • air traffic controllers will be granted increased extra payments for the next one and a half years as an incentive for excessive overtime hours worked, on the basis that a certain punctuality objective (defined as a maximum average of flight delays) is reached;
  • within this period, the management is committed to increasing the workforce of air traffic controllers by 10 percentage points. Moreover, by 2011, it is planned to expand the workforce at Vienna International Airport through an ongoing recruitment policy beyond the threshold of 300 full-time employees ;
  • as a consequence of this employment programme, the regular monthly working hours of air traffic controllers will be reduced from 2008 onwards from the present 35 hours to 32.5 hours.

This agreement means that the workers, in the short term, will continue to have a monthly working time of up to 180 hours (including incidental overtime of up to 45 hours). However, within this period, the burden of excessive overtime will be compensated for by additional extra pay. In the longer term, the average working hours of air traffic controllers will be significantly reduced. Chair of HTV, Norbert Payr, and CEO of Austro Control, Christoph Baubin, expressed their satisfaction with the solution reached.

Georg Adam, Institute of Industrial Sociology, University of Vienna

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