One of my new duties in retirement is that of driver. Mom's taxi has become Dad's taxi. I was driving my son to school, halfway listening to a story on National Public Radio and I heard a familiar phrase: "Institutional memory." That got my attention. Institutional memory is a phrase I use when I try to explain what happened to ATC after the PATCO strike in 1981. The FAA lost much of it's institutional memory and never did anything to rectify the situation. The NPR story was explaining how the same thing is currently happening at the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. The career employees are leaving "in droves."
While that subject might be a little too political for dinner conversation, it's hard to imagine a more nonpolitical subject than fighting diseases. Yet, I was reading much the same thing about the Centers for Disease Control in Time magazine. They published an article entitled "What Ails the CDC" explaining how, "Perhaps the most immediate problem is the number of senior-level people who are leaving." That sounds just a little too familiar. So did this: "... you don't replace the experts at CDC easily." The same has been said of air traffic controllers. The author of the article seems to grasp the potential consequences of this trend when she wrote, "Nobody is claiming that the CDC has become another governmental basket case like FEMA -- at least not yet."
I wonder how long it will be before FEMA will be replaced as the poster child of government incompetence? Perhaps incompetence is the wrong word. Neglect. Mismanagement. How about abuse? Take your pick. It all winds up spelling out the same message. We're in trouble.
I could say you are in trouble. After all, I am retired. I no longer have to sit in front of a radar scope everyday and watch the FAA implode in slow motion. And, as you are probably realizing about right now, I no longer have to soften my criticism of it, either. Freedom of speech is indeed a marvelous thing. But in that I actually do believe in all those things I've written about over the years -- a commitment to safety, public service, good government -- I'm going to stick with "We are in trouble."
As I alluded to earlier, I believe the harshest blow Air Traffic Control ever took (at least in my career) was the loss of institutional memory in the PATCO strike of 1981. You can tell how much weight I give the issue by my constant attempts to explain the reasons behind the rules. When I started out there wasn't any time to explain the reasons behind the rules and by the time there was, there weren't many people left that could. Much of the FAA's "institutional memory" walked out the door on August 3, 1981. History is repeating itself even as you read these words. "Senior level" controllers are leaving the FAA "in droves." And they're taking what little "institutional memory" there is left with them.
As I hope I've made clear, this problem isn't limited to just the FAA. As nearly as I can tell, it is government-wide. That gives the average citizen -- and legislators -- a lot of areas to be concerned about. Add in the war in Iraq, Social Security, the spiraling cost of health care, energy prices and a seemingly endless list of other problems. Do you ever stop and wonder where general aviation falls on the general public's radar screen? Off the scope, perhaps?
As I'm sure most of you already realize, there is a major battle brewing about user fees in aviation. The FAA is up for reauthorization in 2007 and we're almost there. Just take a look at this one issue of AVwebFlash and you'll get an idea of what is at stake: Controller staffing, safety inspector staffing, system capacity, $4.4 billion for the Next Generation Air Traffic System (NGATS) and $100 million to upgrade the power systems at FAA facilities (that isn't in the budget). Does any of this surprise you? It doesn't me.
You see, you paid me a lot of money for a lot of years to look after your interests. It was my business to keep up with these things. True, many people think I just got paid to keep airplanes separated. To be honest, there are some controllers who think that way, too. I've always expected a little more of myself. And there are many, many more civil servants that feel the same way.
I hope you'll keep this concept -- public service -- in mind during the next year. When controllers tell you they are short of staffing, I hope you'll give it serious consideration. Don't get me wrong, I expect a certain amount of healthy skepticism. Consider the source but consider what is being said, too. When you see the Inspector General warning of a safety inspector shortage and in the same publication you read about a shortage of Flight Service Specialists, I hope you begin to see the pattern. When the Inspector General calls something "high risk," I hope you'll realize that it is your $4.4 billion in tax dollars that is at risk. And when your friendly local Airways Facility technician tells you that "fix on fail" is a really bad policy, I hope you'll listen.
Let's go back to the issue I was talking about earlier. What do you think the general public thinks about GA? Do they think of it at all? You probably know better than I do all the misconceptions that exist. Try explaining to your average non-aviation-minded citizen what an Air Route Traffic Control Center is. Talk about misconceptions. "You were an air traffic controller in Hampton, Ga? I didn't know Hampton had an airport." When GA goes to Capitol Hill to fight for its interests during the FAA reauthorization next year, who do you think its allies will be? The airlines? Real estate developers? Yeah, I don't think so, either.
Let me name you one potential ally: Controllers. I spent much of my time in the National Air Traffic Controllers Association arguing this situation. I always made the case that GA was a natural ally for NATCA. There was (and is) an overlap in our interests. GA employs a lot of controllers. Not the majority, true, but a significant number nevertheless. The most common interest is, of course, the simplest: Controllers are your employees.
There is no middle-man between controllers and private pilots. Sure, the airlines pass along much more tax money, but controllers don't talk to the airline CEOs on the radio. Controllers don't even talk to the CEOs in the business jets. But controllers do talk to private pilots. Every single day. It's a unique connection and I believe it could be a powerful one.
How do the controllers feel about it? What are NATCA's plans? I don't know. You'll have to ask them. That is another point I want to drive home in this article: I'm not a NATCA representative anymore either. I'm neither a Federal employee nor a NATCA Safety Representative. I'm just a plain old citizen now, just like you.
I guess I might need to explain all this a little further. You see, years ago, when AVweb asked me to write for them, I couldn't. At least I didn't think I could. Legally that is. I even have a letter from the FAA telling me I couldn't. It would have been a conflict of interest, according to the FAA. That same logic didn't apply to a representative of NATCA. Which I was. Which is the reason I always identified myself as such. You can look at all my previous articles and you'll see I "signed" every one of them with my title as a NATCA Safety Rep. You won't see that title starting with this article.
I know some of my readers might not hold unions in very high regard. Or public employees. I hope I've given you reason to reconsider that opinion these last five years. I believe in both. I intend to be an associate member of NATCA until the day I die. And I fully intend to support public service in whatever way I can.
And that brings me to the crux of the matter: While we all have our attention diverted to various hot-button issues, I believe there is a real threat that Air Traffic Control may be privatized in the United States. Most of General Aviation is focused on user fees at the moment. The controllers are busy fighting for their professional lives. The Administrator has imposed a "B scale" for the new controllers the FAA needs to hire. At the same time, the FAA is driving its senior controllers out the door with its petty and vindictive imposed work rules.
You've got to stop and ask yourself, "Why?" I believe if we can all step back from our narrow viewpoints and try to see the bigger picture, it becomes a lot clearer. If you drop the "user" and focus on the "fee," it might hit you that you don't pay governments fees. You pay governments taxes. You pay fees to businesses. The term "B scale" didn't come from the government. Can you name me another government agency with a B-scale? The concept comes straight from the airline business ... American Airlines, as a matter of fact, the former employer of Russ Chew, head of the FAA's Air Traffic Organization. If you look at it from this viewpoint, driving your senior (i.e., expensive) employees out begins to look like a none-too-gentle version of early buy-outs, something that the FAA is offering some of its other employees, by the way. You might have missed the FAA's recent emphasis on "cost accounting" but it fits in with their incessant chant of acting "more like a business."
You might as well put a new coat of paint on the building and stick a "For Sale" sign on the front lawn. I believe your Air Traffic Control system -- the one you paid for -- is up for sale.
There are many other signs that lead me to this conclusion, of course. The sheer number of contractors at the FAA's Regional and National Headquarters has piqued the curiosity of many. I bumped into one the other day. I used to work with him at Atlanta Center. He tried to explain to me who he was working for but quickly lost me. As near as I could tell, he was working for a contractor twice-removed: a contractor of a contractor of a contractor for the FAA. No matter how confusing, if you'll take a look at all the signs for yourself (and I wish you would), I think you'll see how easy it would be to privatize the Air Traffic Control portion of the FAA. And how virtually every move the FAA is making these days makes it easier to do so. After all, it has already happened at many VFR Towers and at Flight Service.
I know some were jumping up and down with joy when the Democrats recently won control of the Senate and the House. I think any celebration is premature. I'll grant you that a Democratic Congress would be less likely to contract out ATC, but that doesn't mean that they won't. There are many other factors at work. The biggest -- as always -- is money. ATC is expensive. That's one reason some other countries have privatized their systems. ATC consumes a significant amount of the United States budget and the pressure to cut that budget is considerable and constant.
I know many of my readers will find it odd that I'm writing about "big picture" items. I don't do it often and, quite frankly, I'm not that comfortable writing about them. Even worse, I'm treading on political ground. I think the politics of this country have already become much too partisan, so I certainly don't want to pour gas on the blue-vs.-red fire. However, politics is a reality that can't be ignored when you're talking about government policy.
It is how government policy affects individuals that concerns me. It's a mighty long chain from "budgetary pressures making privatization seem attractive" to how your request for VFR advisories is handled by a controller. Yet, no matter how long the chain, the issues are still linked.
I hope that you'll be interested in how current policies affect all government employees. But I know you'll be interested in how it affects air traffic controllers. They're your employees -- in more ways than one. And to highlight my new status, they're now my employees too. I'm now just another taxpayer.
Let me ask you a few questions, one citizen to another. Do you think privatizing the biggest, best, greatest (pick your superlative) air traffic system in the world is a good idea? What is it supposed to do for us? For you? For the citizens? For the country? How is it supposed to be better?
Here's another question for you. Would privatization be better for your employees? I can ask that another way and put a different spin on it: Would your employees be better off working for someone else?
I liked working for the American public. I can't say how I'd like working for a private company. I haven't done so in 25 years. There might be something to it. Who knows? I might get rich on the stock options. Of course, along with the potential rewards there are potential risks. The company could go broke and I could get laid off.
What was I saying earlier? "It is how government policy affects individuals that concerns me." When I worked an emergency as a controller, I never once thought that the "bottom line" was money. Nothing else ever mattered except getting those people back to safety. I suspect it wouldn't be too much different for a private company. Avoiding the bad press alone would probably be worth whatever it cost. But what about a student pilot who needed a little "hand holding"? How does that fit into the "bottom line."
I know many of you have thought about what you might do if you have to start paying user fees or if the system was privatized. I've heard the talk about avoiding charges for weather briefings by not getting one. Avoiding charges for an IFR flight by going VFR. Do me a favor, will you? Spend a couple of minutes thinking about how controllers might have to adjust to user fees or privatization.
The National Airspace System of the United States is by far the greatest in the world. Much of the credit for that goes to GA. Student pilots come from all over the world to learn to fly here. We have GA airports that run more traffic than other country's busiest commercial airports. Controllers see this first-hand, everyday, on their radar scopes and outside their tower-cab windows. They see the business owners on their trips, the freight dogs on their midnight runs, the Angel Flights and even the guys just looking at the changing leaves on a clear, fall day.
Think about these things. Think about what they mean to you and what they mean to this country. Don't let anybody mess this up.
Have a safe flight.
Want to read more from air traffic controller Don Brown? Check out the rest of his columns.