The U.S. Department of Transportation agreed on April 27 to settle an age discrimination lawsuit filed by hundreds of former FAA flight service specialists who lost their jobs and retirement benefits when the FAA hired a private contractor to provide those services in 2005.
The settlement agreement filed April 28 in the case before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia stipulates that 25 plaintiffs will be awarded service credit sufficient to qualify for air traffic controller retirement benefits, with the FAA to provide necessary (though unspecified) funds. Another 646 plaintiffs will share a $43.8 million settlement in lieu of compensation and benefits they might otherwise have received. According to the settlement, 31 of the 646 sharing in the settlement fund died while the 16-year case was in progress, and their benefits will go to their respective estates.
The lawsuit alleged unprecedented discrimination:
“The discriminatory decision to contract out the Flight Service component of Air Traffic Control, which has historically been classified as inherently governmental, will have the effect of terminating Plaintiffs’ positions with the FAA, eliminating or reducing their pay, dramatically limiting their retirement benefits, and prematurely ending their federal careers at the conclusion of the seven-month or earlier phase-in period in or about October 2005,” the original complaint states. “Prior to the February 1, 2005 announcement, no private sector industry existed that compared to the Flight Service functions performed by the FAA’s Automated Flight Service Stations. Plaintiffs have been made the targets of the FAA’s discriminatory decision because they are over 40 years of age.”
The transfer of flight services to Lockheed Martin was not trouble-free. Privatization was billed at the time as a cost-cutting move, and AOPA worked with Lockheed Martin and the FAA to resolve many of the problems associated with the transition by 2007. Lockheed Martin spun its flight service business off in 2016, renaming it Leidos Flight Service. The FAA awarded Leidos a contract extension in 2019.
Meanwhile, the federal discrimination case proceeded slowly for years, generating hundreds of motions and legal maneuvers. The plaintiffs’ attorneys issued a press release on April 28 hailing the settlement as the largest payout ever made by the federal government over age discrimination claims.
“It has been a long journey, but I am thrilled that justice will finally be served in this case,” said Kathleen Breen, one of the original named plaintiffs, in a joint news release from the law firms of Cohen Milstein Sellers and Toll, and Gary M. Gilbert and Associates. “Sixteen years ago, I lost my job due to a discriminatory choice by our federal government, despite our loyalty and commitment to keeping our skies safe. The consequences of that decision are still with so many of us to this day, which is why we never gave up our fight.”
Plaintiffs’ attorney Gary M. Gilbert said the 2005 decision to privatize flight services “was among the most egregious acts of mistreatment of employees by our government that I have seen in my more than 40 years of practice. The FAA lured these folks into a profession that had little transferable skills with promises of enhanced retirement benefits. It then discarded them after private industry sought to contract to provide the same work cheaper only by using the same workforce without any retirement benefits. In an unprecedented act, the FAA promised private industry these employees would be available as a workforce and then frustrated efforts for the displaced workers to find other jobs in the Federal sector.”
The plaintiffs hired their current legal team in 2017, the press release notes. Court records reflect a flurry of procedural motions and status conferences in the past year leading up to the settlement signed April 27 on behalf of Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.