Monday, August 03, 2009

FAA History Lesson -- August 3, 2009

I can’t say they were right. I can’t even say they were smart. But with every year that passes, it gets harder and harder to say the PATCO members were wrong. President Reagan’s star dims more and more as time passes. A large part of that has to do with the plight of the American worker.

Unions took a lot of the blame for America’s ills during Reagan’s term and the subsequent years. Businesses were unleashed to break their unions and the results really weren’t that hard to predict in hindsight. Workers suffered and considering today’s situation, you have to ask yourself who was really to blame.

A more specific lesson is available by looking at the FAA -- then and now. The Agency is still a basket case. Controllers learned something from the PATCO strike even if the FAA didn’t. We didn’t go on strike. We just retired. And it has put the FAA in the same bind as the PATCO strike. They’re short of controllers and the institutional memory of the controller’s profession has taken another devastating blow.

To understand my point, it might help to remember that Christ was once considered a criminal, George Washington a traitor and Joseph Stalin an ally. Time changes the perspective of history. Here’s the FAA perspective from the late 1990s.

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

”Aug 3, 1981: Nearly 12,300 members of the 15,000-member Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) went on strike, beginning at 7 a.m., EST, grounding approximately 35 percent of the nation's 14,200 daily commercial flights. The controllers struck after the failure of eleventh hour negotiations, which began 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug 2, and continued, with one break, past 2 a.m. Monday, Aug 3. Shortly before 11 a.m. on Aug 3, at an impromptu news conference, President Reagan issued the strikers a firm ultimatum: return to work within 48 hours or face permanent dismissal. The government moved swiftly on three fronts -- civil, criminal, and administrative -- to bring the full force of the law to bear on the strikers. In a series of legal steps, Federal officials:

* Asked the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) to decertify PATCO as the bargaining agent for the 17,200 controllers and controller staff members.

* Moved to impound the union's $3.5 million strike fund.

* Filed criminal complaints in Federal courts in eleven cities against twenty-two PATCO officials.

* Sought restraining orders against the strikers in thirty-three courts.

Even before the 7 a.m. walkout, a U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia signed an order directing the controllers to return to work. Late in the evening on Aug 3, another judge of the same court found the union in contempt for failing to obey the first order and imposed an accelerating schedule of fines totaling $4.7 million if the controllers failed to report to work ($250,000 for Tuesday, August 4; $500,000 for Wednesday; $1 million a day for the next four days). That judge also fined PATCO President Robert Poli $1,000 a day for each day the strike continued, through Sunday, Aug 9. Approximately 875 controllers returned to work during the 48 hour grace period granted. After expiration of the grace period, about 11,400 controllers were dismissed. Most of those fired appealed the action, and 440 were eventually reinstated as a result of their appeals.

The strike and dismissals drastically curtailed FAA’s controller workforce. According to DOT’s FY1982 annual report, the firings reduced the number of controllers at the full performance or developmental level from about 16,375 to about 4,200. To keep the airways open, approximately 3,000 ATC supervisory personnel worked at controlling traffic. FAA assigned assistants to support the controllers, and accelerated the hiring and training of new air traffic personnel. Military controllers arrived at FAA facilities soon after the strike began, and about 800 were ultimately assigned to the agency. The combined force was sufficiently large to handle traffic without activating the National Air Traffic Control Contingency Plan, which called for FAA itself to establish rigid, severely curtailed airline schedules and to prescribe routes and altitudes.

The day the strike began, FAA adopted Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR) 44, establishing provisions for implementing an interim air traffic control operations plan (see Feb 18, 1982). That plan allowed FAA, among others things, to limit the number of aircraft in the national airspace system. Hence, on Aug 5, the agency implemented a plan dubbed "Flow Control 50," whereby air carriers were required to cancel approximately 50 percent of their scheduled peak-hour flights at 22 major airports. FAA maintained an en route horizontal spacing between aircraft under instrument flight rules of up to 30 miles. Aircraft were kept on the ground, as necessary, to maintain this spacing. FAA gave priority to medical emergency flights, Presidential flights, flights transporting critical FAA employees, and flights dictated by military necessity. General aviation flights operated under the severest restrictions. Aircraft with a gross takeoff weight of 12,500 pounds or less were prohibited from flying under instrument flight rules; moreover, aircraft flying under visual flight rules were prohibited from entering terminal control areas. Other general aviation aircraft were served, as conditons permitted, on a first-come-first-served basis. (See Jul 2, 1981, and Sep 4, 1981.) “

Don Brown
August 3, 2009


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