...And Back To Business As Usual

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Carr is applauding a move by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Treasury and General Government to include $10 million for the hiring of new air traffic controllers. In a press release, Carr says the money is just a beginning to ensure adequate staffing in the future. "We will not rest until we have enough eyes watching our skies," he said. Both the Senate and the House now have money in their appropriations bills to hire more controllers but the bills still have a long way to go before they are passed. "We hope the House and Senate approve this funding and work to continue providing resources to hire and train controllers in coming years," Carr said.

The following is the text of the letter sent to AVweb from NATCA president, John Carr:

Dear AvWeb,

My name is John Carr. I am president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA,) and I represent slightly over 20,000 aviation safety related professionals at the FAA, Department of Defense and in the private sector. One of my largest bargaining units is the air traffic controller bargaining unit, numbering somewhere near 15,000 on any given day.

I am writing to address the issues raised in the anonymous letter you printed on September 9th from one "Jane Doe," allegedly an air traffic controller. Leaving aside for a moment the propriety of printing anonymous letters, I would like to take this opportunity to comment on and challenge virtually every assertion made by your ghost letter writer.

I must begin with a moment of clarity for your readers. NATCA advised you that we would be happy to grant interviews with you on any of the topics contained in the letter, but that we did not see the value in commenting on anonymous accusations about unidentified facilities. Therefore, your characterization that we emphatically declined to comment is unfortunately not accurate. That's a shame. We think your readers would have liked to know our positions on the issues raised. That's why I am writing today. The following are the facts.

First and foremost, every AvWeb reader should be shocked and, frankly, quite concerned about the remarks attributed to FAA spokesman Greg Martin. Incredibly enough, Martin believes an anonymous letter with no investigation, no corroboration, no evidence and no due process constitutes "troubling charges" that are "well known to the agency." If they are well known to the agency and the agency has done nothing about them, then agency officials responsible for such malfeasance should be removed from office immediately for dereliction of duty. Absent such affirmative action I will assume these anonymous and unsubstantiated charges are without merit or the agency is incompetent, inept and unable to manage their own affairs.

Second, Martin alleges CRU-X is controversial. What Martin does not report---probably because his superiors don't think he needs to know it---is that I have personally offered both Marion Blakey and Russ Chew the opportunity to turn CRU-X on immediately at every facility in the nation, without bargaining or union participation. The only caveat I have asked for in return is that it be done at every facility. Curiously enough, both Blakey and Chew have refused my more than generous offer. Why? Because CRU-X does not work. It does not work at large facilities, it does not work at medium sized facilities and it is only marginally efficient at small facilities. CRU-X is controversial because the agency tried to create a boutique computer program using lightweight software (Microsoft Access,) and their productivity product is crash-prone, buggy and unsuitable for nationwide implementation. The fact that the FAA still has the DOT Inspector General buffaloed concerning CRU-X ranks right up there with "Who Shot JR?" on the list of all-time good summer mysteries.

Now, to the text of your phantom pen pal's letter. She opens by claiming that no controller has been overworked at her last three facilities. Her remarks in this regard are telling from several perspectives. First, almost no controller refers to himself or herself as an "air traffic controller." We call ourselves just plain controllers, because we assume you know that there are no other kinds. Your author refers to controllers in the third person in much of her letter, which is also very telling. Controllers say "I," and "we." They rarely speak, Mr. T-like, in the third person when referring to themselves. For these reasons I doubt seriously that your letter writer is an active controller. Oh, she may have been one and might be in management or she could be one of those training failures she rails so mightily about, but I doubt that she's pushed much tin in her life.

Ms. Anonymous disagrees that staffing is too low. What Anonymous doesn't offer is any definitive proof concerning her claims. My organization is on record regarding the staffing issue, and as luck would have it we have no less an authority that the FAA Administrator, the GAO and the DOT IG as our proof points. Each of the three has testified regarding the looming staffing crisis. The fact that a single controller in a single facility disagrees isn't news. What is news is that we are already seeing staffing shortages occur. And what is also news is that when you increase staff to levels that the FAA actually requires, operational errors decline, or, simply put, safety increases.

Anonymous mentions time on position as if it is the Holy Grail of productivity measurements. Imagine my surprise in discovering that nothing could be further from the truth. Controllers do training, briefings, mandatory recurrency regimens and a whole host of other things that, while considered productive time, are not recorded as being "on position." Four hours on position plus two hours of non-position work is six hours a day. Allowing for two breaks and a lunch there isn't much time unaccounted for. I will also add that you probably don't want controllers staring at the ol' radar scope for more than about two hours on position without a break, a standard which the FAA agrees to, lest attentiveness wander and mental acuity fade (as all the research on the subject suggests it will.)

Stop the presses if you think using vacation time is newsworthy. Even the draconian FAA recognizes that employee vacation time is an earned right, not a privilege, and it is requested by the employee, approved by management, and used at the discretion of the controller. Anonymous makes it sound like a scandal. Sorry., . Using vacation time for a vacation is pretty much how things are done out here in the big world.

I am very grateful that your mystery scribe mentioned sick leave, because there is a misconception concerning sick leave that exists at the very highest levels of the agency. You see, controllers are drug tested, alcohol tested, vision tested, mentally tested, and are prohibited from working while taking a whole host of over the counter medications, including such medicine cabinet standards as NyQuil and Sudafed. This is appropriate, and as it should be.

I assure you that you do not want a controller working the noon balloon into Chicago O'Hare -- or anywhere else for that matter -- who's-reaction-time-is-slowed-by-the-effects-of-medication. To be blunt with you, working controllers longer, older and sicker is not only bad public policy but dangerous and unsafe. That moment of hesitation you sacrifice might be the difference between a safe operation and a thin pink mist at thirty thousand feet.

Anonymous did make one very salient and I believe correct point. The controllers union is staffed with very smart individuals. We take the safety of the flying public as our sacred trust, and we have an eighteen-year record of accomplishment in this regard. We have always been at the forefront of modernization, procedural innovation, technological introduction and productivity improvement. Our record of achievement can be abundantly documented in congressional testimony, memorandums of understanding, flexible work rules that allow for additional duties and contract after contract reached in good faith with our employer.

Anonymous allegations regarding drug use are troubling. I trust she has communicated them with the appropriate legal authorities for proper investigation and adjudication. The FAA has one of the lowest recorded drug use rates in the world, statistics readily available to anyone with the wherewithal to check. While Anonymous waxes philosophical about the protections offered these troubled individuals she ignores and even tramples on their rights to due process and rehabilitation. I can only hope she is in perfect mental and physical health for the duration of her career, lest someone suggest she, too be fired (although from the text of her letter the former is certainly in doubt.) Neither the FAA nor NATCA condones drug use, on or off duty. When it is discovered, by the very stringent protocols to which we are all subjected, the law takes over. It's pathetic and a little sad that such fair treatment escapes Anonymous' notice in her rush to judgment.

If controllers seem to Anonymous as arrogant, it's because controllers are taught to be right, 100% of the time, in 100% of the decisions that they make. Such training creates a certain foxhole mentality in towers and radar rooms, but it is no different in other high stress, high tech and high-pressure occupations, like police and firefighters. Is there a certain mental toughness required to perform the job? Absolutely. Is that something you want when you are hurtling through space in a Pringles tube full of jet fuel at five hundred miles an hour and someone else is making life and death decisions for you? I think so.

How controllers dress for work is immaterial to performance, but since she mentioned it I will cover it nonetheless. The dress code for controllers is negotiated between union and management. While I appreciate Anonymous' fashion sense she has no clue regarding what the employer thinks is appropriate work attire. Perhaps she could sit down with Greg Martin and hash that one out. While I doubt that a snappy Versace ensemble with matching broach and shoes will make one a better controller, I'm always willing to try new and innovative techniques.

Anonymouscloses by mentioning controller pay. I must assume from her tone and tenor she believes herself to be overpaid, and I anxiously await your research into what she does with these excess purloined wages. Does she do like Congressman DeFazio, and fund scholarships with her pay raises? Does she contribute them to charity? I can't wait to see if she is dedicated to her convictions, or if she is, as they say in Texas, "all hat, no cattle."

For the record: controllers are fairly compensated for the high stress, high tech, high-pressure work they perform. They are in a career that OPM has designated for special retirement provisions due to the fact that most employees would be unable to achieve a normal retirement due to the unique demands of the job. They give the very best years of their lives to their employers, and they give every ounce of themselves to the work they love and the people they serve. While you cannot put a price tag on safety, the salaries paid to air traffic controllers in this country rank as the best bargain since Manhattan Island was bought for a couple strings of colored beads.

Anonymous will respond to emails from you, but fears her peers. What I say to Anonymous is, "have no fear. Call me directly." My number is 202/628-5451 and if anonymous, or any of your readers, wish to discuss these matters further, I would be more than happy to oblige.

You see, I run an organization that is bedrocked on trust, honor and integrity. Facts, as our FAA Administrator would say, are stubborn things, and the facts are not with your Pulitzer pretender in any way, shape, form or fashion.

The staffing crisis is real. I am disappointed, that you found such anonymous rumor and hearsay to be newsworthy. You have not served the public well.

Best personal regards,

John S. Carr President NATCA