What's Really Wrong with ATC?

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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.

ATC radarI'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.

NATCO logoVarious 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.

Control TowerAs 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.

ATC at workBut 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.

Tower with antennasThen 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 new-hires.

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

FAA sealAt 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 beginning.

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.

It's the peopleBut 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 met. :)