At a meeting with trade unions representing 5,500 staff in National Air Traffic Services, management agreed to hold urgent talks on pay with Prospect, the union representing air traffic controllers.
On behalf of 2,000 controllers, Prospect aviation officer David Luxton said: "Controllers have voted four to one to reject the offer and they are very dissatisfied.
"Today we saw positive signals from NATS that it is prepared to respond to their concerns but we need to see progress made quickly."
Calling the next few weeks "a window of opportunity" to avert industrial action, Luxton said controllers and NATS fully appreciated that industrial action was the last thing the travelling public wanted to see.
But a 2.2% pay rise for 2002 was "unreasonable" at a time of unprecedented change to the air traffic system. "The financial crisis in NATS, job cuts among engineers, the move to Swanwick, computer breakdowns – the pressures on controllers have never been greater," said Luxton. "They feel overworked and under-valued and this offer has been a real blow to morale."
Luxton added that government had an over-riding responsibility, as the largest shareholder in NATS, to ensure that NATS had adequate funds to pay staff and keep the ATC system in operation. "Government created the financial structure in which NATS has to operate – now it must make it work," he said.