Sunday, August 12, 2007

FAA History Lesson -- August 12

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Aug 12, 1993: The Clinton Administration announced that air traffic controllers fired for participation in the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization strike (see Aug 3, 1981) could apply for reemployment. (Since Dec 1981, the fired controllers could apply for any federal position except for jobs in the FAA and certain related positions in the Defense and Treasury Departments.) At the time of the announcement, FAA had already imposed a hiring freeze because of budget restrictions. The agency estimated that once the freeze ended it would hire fewer than 200 new controllers per year over the next few years. In Jan 1995, a rehired group of 26 former strikers began training, and about 14 others were rehired during that year. (See Feb 22, 1996). ”

There are subtle but important lessons to be noted here. The Government -- in the form of a new Administration -- changes. The Clinton Administration reversed a Reagan Administration policy. Yet on another level -- the bureaucratic level -- the Government doesn’t change so easily. And on yet an even deeper level -- the culture of the Government can be even harder to change.

We tend to think that when the President speaks, the rest of the Government, says “yes Sir!”, salutes and starts marching. It’s not quite so simple. The higher level bureaucrats -- the career civil servants -- have an agenda of their own. They also have long memories. Much longer than a President’s four year (or even eight year) term.

The rehiring of the PATCO controllers was a political decision. Barring them from employment as controllers had been an irritating thorn in Labor’s paw for over a decade. The Clinton Administration may have believed in the justice of removing this thorn but in the greater scheme of things, it was a token gesture, considering the hiring freeze that was in effect.

When the hiring freeze was lifted, the bureaucracy had their turn. They hired a few but they weren’t happy about it. And the lower the decision worked it’s way down the food chain, the more the culture of the FAA took over.

When the culture of the FAA took over -- in that it was the same culture that contributed to the strike -- there was no way that culture was going to admit it was wrong. So, there wasn’t any way that this program was going to succeed. It wasn’t just incompetence, it was vindictiveness too.

This is the same culture that has given us the current crisis in the FAA. Over 25 years have passed and nothing has really changed. Keep this in mind for when this current crisis reaches the boiling point. And make no mistake about it, it will. (That’s the whole point, remember ? Create a crisis in order to present privatization as the answer.)

When it happens, try something different. Try firing the ones responsible for the culture. This time, fire the management. I’m serious. Take the top FAA managers and hand them their walking papers. I bet it would do more to change the culture of the FAA than firing 11,000 controllers did.

The PATCO controllers were fired -- supposedly -- for breaking their oath. Their oath -- their word. But what of the FAA’s Administrator’s promise ?

”The title, vice president,’ matches the performance expectations for these executives, said Blakey. This team will bring a business-like focus to running their respective service units and will be held accountable for results.”

(Emphasis added)

Will Ms. Blakey be held to her word with the same vigor ?

Don Brown
August 12, 2007

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