The Big Sky Theory

My Story of ATC for Decades


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Lots of them. Almost universally bad.

First, however, let me set the record straight: I worked a midnight shift on 3 August 1981. I walked outside to see almost all of my coworkers assembled outside the gate with signs. And lest you think I made a last minute or ex post facto decision, I was committed to going out from the beginning. I knew we had no choice. Anyone who was inside knew we had no choice. We’d been pushed into a corner with no alternative. Granted, we may have laid some bricks of our own which made up that corner, but we were up against a stone wall, not a brick one. It wasn’t of our making.

Anyway, part of our procedure once we were “fired” (I put that in quotes because initially we were sure there would be a negotiation and a settlement, as has been customarily done in these circumstances for decades, and that ultimately, we’d be un-fired), we would appeal the action administratively and let things take their course. Rather than detail the life of the unemployed for 22 months, suffice to say that my appeal worked its way through the system and ultimately, I won and was fully restored due to administrative error on the part of the FAA (imagine that).

The details were basically that I actually did work on the 3rd, so they had no basis for firing me for missing that shift, and I was scheduled to begin two weeks of Annual Leave (vacation) after the shift. Oops. I know some law-’n-order types will scoff at the technicality, but the rules are for everyone. If you’re going to fire someone, no matter what the circumstances, you’re obligated to follow the correct procedure. They didn’t in my and about forty other cases, and they paid for it.

Personally, of course, it was a huge sigh of relief financially and psychologically to be reinstated—beyond the obvious. I had already taken steps to reorder my life and had returned to college. In fact, my reinstatement was scheduled in the middle of a semester and in an ironic twist, I had to ask the facility to grant me an additional month of leave without pay in order to complete the semester. I’m not sure whether they granted the request in a gesture of humanitarian and common sense consideration (unlikely, given later events) or welcomed any opportunity to keep me out of the facility several weeks longer. I don’t remember the exact day I returned to work, but I believe it was in May of 1983.

Back to the narrative: I was amazed over the years at how consistently the FAA made poor choices for managers, and not surprisingly, who then made poor management choices. I’m not going to try and recount a lot of them, and probably not enough of them to convince you I’m right. Suffice to say that in 2009, when a survey of government employees was conducted, the FAA ranked 214th out of 216 agencies. It shouldn’t take much of a roadmap to figure out where to start looking to explain that result

Now, I’ll be perfectly fair. Several times over the years, I’ve asked myself how I would manage someone like me, and I don’t have an immediate answer. For one thing, I’m too close to the subject. For another, I don’t have the training in enough depth to effectively analyze both the facts and the possible outcomes. But the long and the short of it is one might easily conclude I’m the problem. Sadly, the statistics as represented in the preceding paragraph don’t support that conclusion. Oh, perhaps in the micro view, but globally, the FAA’s track record in labor/management relations is abysmal.

Don’t take my word for it. Here are some research topics for you:

Now it would be easy to discount PATCO as a fractious, militant, opportunistic labor organization, especially if you’re inclined against labor in the first place. But I lived it. And I can tell you that short of Frank Lorenzo, there are few more anti-labor individuals than we’ve had running the FAA (and by distribution, managing it) since at least the ’60s. We weren’t in our first week in Flight Data School when Dave or Gene informed us of our choices of labor representatives. There were three, sort of, at the time. ATCA (Air Traffic Control Association), which was actually more of a manager’s society than a labor organization. NAGE (National Association of Government Employees), which had a stranglehold on representation of many of the government employees. PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization), newly formed under the tutelage of Mike Rock and Jack Maher and with the very public help of famed attorney F. Lee Bailey.

I had an awareness of my vulnerability to unchecked retaliation by management to any of my, let’s say, “skeptical assessment” of any of their mandates, so some sort of collective protection was very important to me. By definition, a “Supervisor’s organization (ATCA) was not going to do it for me, and frankly, my recollection of Dave/Gene’s counsel included ATCA’s already reknowned demographic. NAGE was already the exclusive representative of controllers at ZJX, but right away I started hearing things about them that I found troubling—not the least of which was the fact that they represented a broad cross section of government employees—we were unique, with unique skills, and unique tasks. We need a special representative such as PATCO. F. Lee Bailey was someone of whom I knew and I had great respect for many of his attributes, so I was inclined to PATCO before I went downstairs.

As soon as I started meeting people and getting to know them I saw who the heart and soul of PATCO was, and they were my kind of people. I can’t even begin to recount issues that were important to us at the time, but my early brushes with autocratic, capricious, and ignorant managers inclined me to join the loyal opposition. I’ll relate one story in which I was personally involved which may illustrate what we faced when trying to deal with management on even common sense issues. When we bought our house in 1971, it moved us from a drive alone location to one that was conducive to carpooling. In fact, one of my coworkers lived four doors down the street, although he was on a different crew.

Naturally, I made the reasonable request to change crews (even to finding a candidate willing to do so) so that Larry and I could ride to work together. “Unable!” was the imperious response. No reason. No cause. Just no. They must have been Republicans. For a year I pressed every way I could to get someone to see what a reasonable request (and fully justified, even though gas was just 30¢ per gallon) a crew swap was. No training, no money issues, just a straight up, FPL to FPL, same area, paper shuffle. What could be simpler? No!

For the most part of a year I/we (PATCO was involved) tried to get management to accede to this simple request. Finally, at one point they agreed to allow crew swaps, but only once per year, on 1 January, and of course it would be months before we would see the first one. Finally in January, 1973, I got my wish, and was able to change crews. Stroke of a pen. That’s all that was involved. Sadly, I was able to enjoy riding with Larry for fewer than two months as I wound up getting selected for ORD.

Did I walk out over a crew change? Of course not. That represents just a small sample of an incredibly complex atmosphere of management abuse of a highly intelligent, highly skilled, highly motivated work force that still exists. I’ve asked people over the years if they really thought that a labor organization could hoodwink (and hoodwink it would have to be—there was never a pick handle or a gun brandished or even mentioned that I’m aware of during the runup to 1981) 15,000 of the smartest collective body of people you ever saw to quit a job paying then on average about $35,000/year?

What’s even sadder (and more telling) is that after 3 August 1981, many of those who were left recognized an opportunity. Say, for the sake of argument (and has been characterized) that our organization (the FAA) has gotten rid of the 85% of the workforce who we think were whining slackers trying to destroy the system, or at least take it over. Now we have an opportunity to rebuild, start out with people willing to go the extra mile to get the job done, make peace with the workforce, and win the approval of the flying public. Good idea, right?

Guess what? Within two years, people who had stayed in (I’ll say “scabs” one time in this missive, but the sentiment will remain throughout) grew increasingly disenchanted with their work situation and management’s disinterest in addressing the issues which didn’t disappear when we went out the door, and collectively formed a new union to replace PATCO. Don’t you have to ask yourself why that honeymoon was so short? And would you deny my opportunity to savor the irony of the emerging labor/management difficulties in light of the roles of the parties?

I’m not going to write NATCA’s (National Air Traffic Controllers Association—the union formed in the ’80s as a result of management squandering their once in a lifetime opportunity) history, but I was there—from conception, through gestation, birth, infancy, adolescence, and early immaturity. I never joined although I was asked several times. The answer I always gave and which was never questioned, challenged, or argued was, “I can’t in good conscience belong to a union whose members crossed my picket line.”

It’s long been my observation that the FAA—at least the Air Traffic Division—was populated by mostly ex-military folks—both WWII vets and post war controllers. That military experience, while very useful in structuring an organization and solving problems when the fate of a civilization might be in the balance is exactly the wrong model for providing leadership in managing an operation which increasingly required the types of people who make the best controllers—Type A, independent, self starting, motivated, egocentric, smart people. I think it took about one generation to promote the controllers of the Archie League mold—using semaphore flags for airport traffic control—into a position to manage the new breed needed to control high flying DC-7s and Constellations, and even higher flying and faster B-47s and Boeing 707s.

When I hired in, we had people who were permanent D-sides in High who hadn’t been able to transition from the propeller age to the jet age. Why would management be any different? That management pool was never capable of handling the kind of traffic that demanded the reforms the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 sought to impose on what has become the National Airspace System. As a consequence, they couldn’t understand or properly manage those who came on board who could handle that traffic. Because they couldn’t they fell back on the only discipline they knew and understood—para-military starch and order. That’s why you see the “uniforms” of the ’60s with white shirts and black ties. There was never an enroute facility in the country (and few towers) who could count off-hour visiters in the dozens…per year, so who are we trying to impress? No one. First, it parroted the uniforms in the military, and second, enforcing it showed who was in charge.

That’s what FAA’s management goal is, once you filter all the corporate-speak they learned from the real management world. Show them who’s in charge. Because if we don’t tell them, they won’t understand. After about the fourth time I heard a supervisor shout, “…because I’m in charge,” I came to believe that any manager who has to tell his subordinates he’s in charge, really isn’t.

The ugly Imposed Work Rules of September 2006 is the latest repugnant episode of the FAA Management corps telling the troops who’s in charge. Millions of dollars were spent sending front line supervisors to a gathering in St. Louis to tell them all about what the IWR were and what kind of support they could expect from Headquarters. As a consequence, the FAA lost hundreds of veteran controllers to retirement. In conjunction with a singular failure to attract, recruit, and hire new candidates for the job, the workforce is woefully if not dangerously short staffed.

The system is facing a crisis nearly as significant as the one it faced on 4 August 1981. The flying public, already fed up with having to take their shoes off to board an airplane in Rockford, Illinois, and fearing for their lives flying regional airplanes whose pilots aren’t paid enough to rent an apartment, is being led to believe “safety was never compromised,” the FAA’s predictable and hackneyed prevarication in response to the occurance of every shortcoming in the system.

I see I’ve begun to rant a bit. It’s an important subect to me. I spent over half my life in it (at the time I retired) and its health and reputation is significant to me, even now. So, the long and the short of it is, I walked out, returned, and witnessed another fifteen years, working into the fourth decade of my experience. I’ll pick that up in a bit, but first I’m going to turn your stomach.

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Last updated: 09 May 2016