Saturday, April 25, 2009

ATC History Rewind

There is the most interesting article about New York air traffic controllers in -- of all things -- GQ magazine. (Thanks to AW for the tip because I never would have thought to look there.) As I was reading it, it dawned on me just how familiar the circumstances were. Yes, I know...I know. I’m the last person that should be surprised that history is repeating itself. Lord knows, I’ve said it does enough times.

It’s always the little twists that throw you. Just as I suspected, to the insider, this article shows how the FAA workforce is being rebuilt, nearly from the ground up. It’s the “nearly” part that provides the twist. And I never saw this twist coming. The difference is the union. My union. NATCA.

NATCA takes a few hits in this article. Some, I suspect, not wholly undeserved. Nevertheless, it is interesting to read. You see, when I was in the phase of my career that these controllers are in there wasn’t a union. Ronald Reagan had busted PATCO and it took six years to get NATCA started. That was six years in which the FAA had a free hand to do whatever it wanted to do. And it did. That was the reason NATCA was formed -- because the FAA did it so poorly.

Now, evidently, that clarity doesn’t exist because NATCA exists. I can see how it would confuse the newer controllers. “If NATCA wasn’t so obstinate maybe this situation would improve.” Its quite understandable how a young person would think that. I never had to unravel that mystery. There was no union to share the blame. If you think I’m talking only in terms of employee relations you would be mistaken. I’m talking about the FAA doing its job. NATCA was founded in 1987. Find 1987 in this post and check out the numbers. The credit for the decline in Near Mid Air Collisions (NMAC) after 1987 doesn’t belong to NATCA so much as the rise leading up to the peak in 1987 belongs to the FAA.

But I’m getting off course. This is supposed to be about the article in GQ. It’s a long one, so you’ll need to set some time aside to read it. Here’s a teaser to give you a feel for it. (Italics is used in the original format.)


“When I went down 14th Street and talked to the people at the FAA about meeting some controllers, they assumed I was there to talk about misery. Had I spoken to anyone at NATCA? What did they say? They wanted to squelch rumors. They spoke of the union as if it were a bunch of bratty little girls throwing fits for a candy fix. They handed me a handsome four-color glossy report proving that controllers were happy, or if they weren’t, they should be. Everything is fine. Don’t panic. Everything is under control.


You see, it’s not your standard fare. And it was easier to let you read it than to figure out how to describe it. There is one other quote I wanted to provide so that I could answer one of Ms. Laskas’ questions.

” We sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Whitestone Expressway and wonder why morale at the LaGuardia tower is so completely different than it is at the TRACON.“

That’s easy. It’s the number of managers. It goes beyond this simple explanation but I can at least get you thinking in the right direction. Think about the smallest Tower out there. It’s got one manager. He’s the only one that can get you fired. He’s the only one providing direction. He’s the only one that has to be pleased with your work. If you get a good manager, you get a good place to work. If you get a bad manager, you get a bad place to work.

Now, lets move to the opposite side of the spectrum -- an Air Route Traffic Control Center. (New York Tracon has as many controllers as some Centers.) You have dozens and dozens of managers. In Atlanta Center, we had seven different Areas. There were seven supervisors in each Area -- one for each set of days off. Each Area had a manager -- the Area Manager -- in charge of the seven supervisors. One of the Area Managers was in charge of the entire control room at all times. You never knew which one you would be working with.

That’s 56 managers right there. There were even more managers roaming around in other places. You were bound to bump heads with at least one of them. And if you think a union is bad about sticking up for one of its own (right or wrong), you ought to watch managers. The union didn’t invent “Us vs. Them”. Trust me. I remember when there wasn’t an “Us”. There was just a “Them”. I also remember when I thought I could be friends with “Them”, just like some of the controllers in this article do. One day, they’ll figure out that it’s hard to be friends with the guy that will fire you. He won’t want to fire you because he too thinks he’s your friend and he knows you don’t really deserved to be fired. But he will. His job, marriage, kids and mortgage will all depend on it. And he’ll do his job. Because he’s “Them” and nobody will stand up to them but “Us”.

Don Brown
April 25, 2009

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