EDITORIAL. Hardly a week passes that we don't hear news coverage of outages of obsolete equipment, staffing shortages, cost overruns, funding problems, and controller "burnout" from the stressful, high-intensity nature of the job. But such stories miss the point entirely. What's really wrong with ATC is that the morale among the men and women at the scopes and mics is at an all-time low, perhaps worse today than in 1981 when the ill-advised PATCO strike and ensuing mass controller firings paralyzed U.S. aviation and changed the face of ATC in this country forever. Without a monumental change in FAA management culture, it could happen again — soon.
September 4, 2000
I'm a pilot, but some of my best friends are air traffic controllers. I've
corresponded extensively with many other controllers in my role as an aviation journalist.
I've spent dozens of hours at air traffic control facilities around the country,
plugged-in and watching controllers ply their craft (usually in awe), and chewing the fat
with them in the lunchroom.
Of the hundreds of controllers with whom I've spoken in recent years, every one has
expressed the same "love-hate" feelings about his or her career in ATC. All love
their work passionately. All hate their employer, the FAA, with equal or greater passion.
Various controllers deal with their hostility toward the FAA in various
ways. Most of the older ones particularly those that were controllers prior to 1981 and
survived the PATCO strike talk with sad nostalgia about the old days, and count the
days until they're eligible for retirement (on a generous civil service pension). Younger
controllers express their anger more openly, and tend to be active in the National Air
Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), the labor union that was formed to represent the
interests of rank-and-file controllers after President Reagan destroyed PATCO and fired
most of its members when they walked off the job in 1981.
Controller morale seems to be at an all-low today, certainly worse than any time since
the 1981 strike, and arguably even worse than those bad old days. From where I sit, the
biggest threat to the ATC system lies not in the frequent breakdowns of archaic equipment
or the squandering of billions of taxpayers dollars on unworkable automation projects, but
in the fact that more and more controllers have become so disgusted with working for the
FAA that they may either quit, strike, or (worse) simply stop going the extra mile when
necessary to make the system work smoothly.
Fist Fights and NATCA NOTAMS
Take Southern California TRACON, for example. This ultra-modern FAA mega-facility, only
about three years old, is equipped with all the FAA's very latest and greatest hardware.
Yet in recent months, stories have been leaking out of fist fights breaking out between
SCT personnel at work, at least one episode serious enough that local law enforcement was
called. Last August, the SCT union local took the unprecedented step of issuing notices to the press warning pilots of unsafe ATC
conditions flying into and out of Los Angeles International Airport. (The AVweb
news staff dubbed these "NATCA NOTAMS.") These folks are not happy campers.
As you might expect, the extent of the morale problem varies
greatly from one ATC facility to another, and from one month to the next. Until not long
ago, for example, Cleveland Center in Oberlin, Ohio, seemed to be a model of efficiency
and controller-management harmony. Then the well-liked ZOB Air Traffic Manager was
promoted (the Peter Principle in action?) and his much-despised deputy took over. Within
months, controller morale plummeted and based on what I've read in a recent ZOB controller
newsletter, mutiny now seems to be in the wind.
Some facilities are doing okay, mostly the ones with managers that believe in giving
the rank-and-file controllers a strong voice in how business should be conducted. A
cooperative program called QTP ("Quality Through Partnership"), in which
controllers and management work out policies and procedures together, has been very
successful in certain ATC facilities. But unfortunately, QTP has become a bad joke and a
dirty word at other facilities where management and union representatives are at each
other's throats and the "we versus they" attitude is alive and well.
To understand how it came to this, you have to look back a few decades.
A Look Back
When I first became active in aviation in the mid-1960s, controllers were for the most
part a happy group. Like airline pilots during the same era, controllers belonged to an
honored and highly-paid profession, one that they were proud of and that was held in high
esteem by the American public. Mostly men from military backgrounds, they wore white
shirts and ties and crew-cuts to work, and talked with male bravado about how they bent
the rules to "move the metal." The managers at ATC facilities were controllers
who had worked their way up the ladder, and the line controllers respected them as one of
their own. Besides, as ex-military men, the controllers were accustomed to taking orders
and working in a hierarchical organization. The system worked smoothly, and life was good.
The notion that these highly-trained, highly-skilled, well-paid, generally happy
controllers might view themselves as "labor" or have any interest in joining a
"labor union" was unthinkable in that era.
Sure the job was intense and stressful, and controllers did suffer more divorces and
alcoholism and hypertension (and in a few cases, burnout) than the general public. But no
more so than other intense, stressful careers like those of cops or test pilots. And you
never heard the controllers complaining about the intensity or stress. To the contrary,
they thrived on it. Like cops and test pilots, it's what they loved most about the job.
But things changed. The 1970s saw the controller ranks becoming
filled with a new generation of young controllers who came out of the anti-war movement
and prized individual freedom. At the same time, the FAA was under pressure to become more
authoritarian, enforcement-oriented, by-the-book, and (some would say) arrogant. A growing
cultural gap developed between these young controllers and the FAA managers they worked
for. The young controllers wore long hair, came to work in jeans and sneakers, and worked
at scopes and mics; the managers had crew cuts, wore suits and ties, and worked in offices
dictating memos. As the controllers became more agitated and vocal, the managers became
more autocratic and less accessible. A "we" and "they" mentality began
to develop, and the seeds were sown that ultimately resulted in the birth and growth of
PATCO and the ATC labor movement.
The PATCO Debacle
Then came airline deregulation in 1978, and with it an explosion of air traffic and
(perhaps more importantly) its concentration and convergence at a handful of
"hub" airports. The ATC system was totally unprepared for this, but the
controllers made it work the best they could, working unsustainable amounts of overtime
and eating their brown-bag lunches while working position. Naturally, PATCO screamed
bloody murder about overstress, understaffing, and bad working conditions.
Then in 1981, in a moment of total insanity, PATCO president
Robert Poli persuaded the majority of controllers to participate in an illegal strike,
despite warnings by President Reagan that he would fire controllers who walked off their
jobs and bar them from government employment. I've had long discussions with a controller
friend who refused to strike in 1981 and kept his job; he tells me that the peer pressure
and strong-arm tactics used by PATCO to get controllers to strike were absolutely
unbelievable. Well, they struck, Reagan fired 11,800 striking controllers, and the FAA was
faced with the awesome task of re-staffing the entire ATC system with tenderfoot
In the clarity of hindsight, the strike aftermath was a mixed blessing for the FAA. On
one hand, the men and women who were hired and trained to re-staff the system were
untainted by past prejudices, and (because they were hired in the midst of a horrible
double-dip recession) very grateful for their FAA jobs. They studied hard, learned
quickly, and followed orders.
But on the other hand, ATC was forced to make due with a horrendous shortfall of
qualified manpower for years while these new-hires came up-to-speed. And what the system
lacked in individual talent during that time, it was forced to make up for with additional
structure and procedures and rules and interfacility Letters of Agreement. As a result,
instead of separating airplanes from other airplanes, controllers increasingly found
themselves separating airplanes from airspace. Air traffic management starting enforcing
the new rules with a vengeance. The Orwellian "snitch patch" was installed in
Center radar systems about this time, and Center controllers started having to defend
themselves before management every time the computer's printer burped. The chasm between
line controllers and management grew wider, and in 1987 another controller's labor union,
NATCA was born.
Deja Vu All Over Again
At first, NATCA leaders brimmed over with enthusiam over how they
and FAA management would make beautiful music together, and how everyone would live
happily ever after. But the honeymoon didn't last long. With air traffic continuing to
grow while the FAA is under intense budget-trimming pressure and FAA managers being given
kick-ass marching orders in the wake of ValuJet, the controller-management rift has once
again grown to Grand Canyonesque at many facilities. FAA managers are becoming more and
more hard-line, while NATCA leaders are becoming militant, grandstanding to the press, and
sounding more and more like Bob Poli all the time. And although neither the FAA nor NATCA
will talk about it, the fact is that some controllers at some facilities are starting to
retaliate against their management with subtle sabotage. At this point, such work actions
are making only minor ripples in an otherwise smooth-flowing system, but it's a dangerous
Meantime, Congress and the press seem to be single-mindedly focused on the other half
of the FAA: the regulation and certification side of the house called Flight Standards.
The pressure is on for more FAA oversight of air carriers and their maintenance
facilities, beefed up airport security, and tighter regulations. To the extent that anyone
is paying attention to the FAA's Air Traffic Division, that attention appears to be
focused on upgrading the equipment and automation. Nobody ever seems to talk about the
human side of the equation.
But make no mistake. It's not the equipment or the computers that
make today's ATC system work. It's the people who move the metal. And when they break,
fixing them will be a lot harder than just swapping circuit boards.
So when the controllers at Southern California TRACON or Cleveland Center or some other
major ATC facility finally say "enough" and throw down their headsets, turn off
their scopes, and tell their FAA bosses to "take this job and shove it,"
Congress and the press and the public will be probably be shocked. Anyone who cared enough
to watch and listen, however, could have seen it coming a long way off.
A Parting Shot...
Did you hear the one about the group of radical air traffic controllers who stormed
into FAA Headquarters at 800 Independence Avenue armed with assault rifles, and took
control of a big conference room full of Air Traffic Managers from facilities across the
country? The leader of the terrorists pulled out his cellular phone, called the head of
NATCA, and threatened to release one of the hostages every hour until his demands were