Air traffic controllers protest over excessive overtime

In February 2008, air traffic controllers employed by Austro Control refused to work ‘excessive’ overtime hours. The conflict caused considerable delays in flight activities; however, it came to an end on 19 February 2008 when a follow-up collective agreement was concluded. The agreement provides for an extra payment scheme for overtime work, along with a commitment to agree on a future working time regulation by May 2008.

Background

In the summer of 2006, employees of Austro Control – the national provider of air traffic control and air safety in Austrian airspace (AT0307203F) – protested against ‘excessive’ overtime work through a work-to-rule campaign (AT0609029I). Significant delays in flight departures at Vienna International Airport (VIA) occurred as a result. In February 2008, the conflict over air traffic controllers’ working conditions flared up once again during the 2008 collective bargaining round. As in 2006, the air traffic controllers were refusing to work ostensibly excessive overtime hours, which they considered would lead to precarious working conditions. The airline most affected by the labour shortage was the Austrian Airlines Group (AUA), the main client of VIA. According to an AUA spokesperson, the national air carrier has recorded considerable delays in flight activities since the beginning of 2008, when the protest action was initiated.

Demands of worker representatives

According to the Chair of the works council of Austro Control, Norbert Payr, who is also Chair of the relevant section of the vida trade union, which organises the air traffic controllers, the increase in personnel has not matched the growth in air traffic volume in recent years. More specifically, the number of air traffic movements in Austria grew from 823,000 in 2000 to nearly 1.17 million in 2007; in the same period, the number of controllers has only slightly increased, currently standing at around 350 controllers throughout the country.

The existing collective agreement for air traffic controllers provides for a basic working week of only 32.5 hours. In addition, each controller has to perform between 30 and 40 ‘fixed’ overtime hours each month, which are scheduled in advance. However, in the event of accumulated sickness absence or leave among the controllers, additional overtime work is regularly demanded by the Austro Control management. This ‘excessive’ overtime work is regarded as unacceptable by the worker representatives. As a result, the works council in line with the vida trade union’s requests is demanding an immediate increase in the number of controllers, along with double overtime premium pay, at least one ‘real’ week-end a month consisting of two subsequent days, and legal provisions on scheduled breaks. Mr Payr states that the aim is to render overtime more expensive for the company in relation to recruiting new staff. If no concessions are made in the future with respect to flight security matters, a significant expansion of the workforce will be inevitable.

Position of Austro Control management

The company’s management agrees on the absolute priority of security matters and confirms that there have been regrettable bottlenecks in controlling services as a result of the labour shortage. However, a spokesperson for Austro Control, Heinz Sommerbauer, has denied that the company has underestimated the development of flight activities in Austrian airspace. In this respect, he argued, Austro Control is fully dependent on the forecasts of the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (Eurocontrol). In order to make up for the current shortfall of labour in air traffic control, Mr Sommerbauer promised that the company would nevertheless intensify its efforts in training and recruiting new staff.

New collective agreement

On 19 February 2008, after eight hours of intensive negotiations, the Austro Control management and the vida trade union, with support from the Union of Postal and Telecommunications Employees (Gewerkschaft der Post- und Fernmeldebediensteten, GPF), finally concluded a follow-up collective agreement for air traffic controllers. The new agreement provides for the following terms:

  • a pay increase of 3.2%;
  • extra payments for certain objectives when reached;
  • a limitation on fixed monthly overtime hours;
  • the doubling of the current level of overtime premium pay for all overtime exceeding 20 hours a month;
  • a commitment from both sides of industry to agree on further working time regulations by mid May 2008.

Reactions to agreement

Both the employer and employee representatives have expressed their satisfaction with the compromise solution. Moreover, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Austro Control, Christoph Baubin, announced the introduction of a staffing programme which aims to make up for the chronic labour shortage by 2010. During the transition period, the necessary burden of excessive overtime will be compensated for by extra pay. For their part, the trade unions are calling on the management to meet their responsibility to provide a suitable staffing programme. Moreover, Mr Payr has warned that a long-term regulation of working hours and scheduled breaks is still outstanding. The possible failure of the parties involved to conclude an agreement on these issues by May 2008 could again evoke new labour conflicts.

Georg Adam, Department of Industrial Sociology, University of Vienna

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