Trouble in the Air

Reagan's mass firing of air traffic controllers made American skies much less safe in the 1980s. Is Bush's flight plan the same?

Dustin Byerly is a former Marine, devout Christian, dedicated Republican, and an air traffic controller. "I love it," he said of his job. "Other than being a baseball player, I wouldn't do anything else." But these days, he is thinking about changing careers — and not to baseball, either. Byerly believes officials with the Federal Aviation Administration have unnecessarily put the nation's air travelers at risk. "They say it's all about dollars and cents," he said. "But we're talking about people's lives here. It's about safety."

Jeff Tilley is neither a bagpiper nor a cross-dressing prankster. He's another frustrated air traffic controller. Worst of all, he and his colleagues are distracted. Instead of focusing solely on airplane safety, some controllers are thinking about quitting — or at least coming up with novel ways to express their anger. One day last month, Tilley put on a kilt before clocking in at Northern California's largest air traffic control center, which is located in Fremont. His managers immediately told him to never do it again.

Flouting the dress code is just about the only way air traffic controllers can voice their intense disapproval of a new contract foisted on them by the Bush administration and the Republican Congress. They certainly can't strike. President Reagan stripped them of that weapon 25 years ago, when he fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers who struck for better wages and a shorter workweek.

Today, there is little dispute that those firings hastened the decline of US unions. Less widely known is the firings' equally detrimental impact on the safety of American skies. When the Federal Aviation Administration replaced the controllers with newly trained rookies in 1981, it laid the groundwork for a particularly bloody decade of air travel. During the ten years that followed the firings, according to an analysis of every fatal US accident since then, air traffic controllers were at least partly to blame for eleven deadly crashes involving commercial and commuter planes. Controller errors played a role in 253 deaths.

The election of President Clinton ushered in an unprecedented era of peace and cooperation between the FAA and the controllers. His administration rehired more than a thousand fired workers, agreed to significant pay raises, and improved working conditions. The results were startling. From 1993 until late August of this year, controllers were faulted in just two deadly crashes involving commercial or commuter planes. Those crashes claimed the lives of 39 people — fewer than one-sixth of the fatalities that occurred during the prior ten years. Moreover, both those accidents occurred in 1994. Thanks partly to the rehiring of these former controllers, the last twelve years have been the safest in the history of commercial aviation.

But that era of safety may just have ended. On August 27, an overworked, sleep-deprived controller in Lexington, Kentucky, appears to have been partly to blame for the worst US air disaster in a half-decade. The unidentified controller, who was working on only two hours' sleep, apparently turned his back on a plane that had taxied onto a runway that was too short for takeoff. The Comair jet barely got its nose off the ground before bouncing off a berm, clipping the airport's fence, and shearing off the tops of nearby trees. The plane crashed and burned in a field, killing 49 of the 50 people on board.

Current and former air traffic controllers worry that the Lexington crash could be a harbinger of things to come. Many are struck by the parallels between the present day and the period following the mass firings in the 1980s. Controllers have always been overworked and tired — they often put in two eight-hour shifts in the same 24-hour period, and routinely work irregular hours. But under their new contract, which the FAA unilaterally imposed just days after the Lexington accident, their lives have become demonstrably worse.

Their contract no longer guarantees ten-minute breaks, prohibits them from calling in sick if they're exhausted, and slashes pay for new controllers by more than 30 percent. The FAA says it's merely trying to save money and curb sick-leave abuse. But sleep experts say the new rules are an invitation to disaster.


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Controller Nils Moberg says the FAA couldn’t replace all the controllers Reagan fired.
photo: Courtesy Nils Moberg

Domenic Torchia always figured that Ronald Reagan would eventually double-cross him and his fellow controllers. Torchia was a founding member of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, the former union better known as PATCO. Back in 1968, controllers were fighting low wages, ten-hour workdays, and ridiculously strict dress codes. They sweated in dark control rooms, hunched over flashing radar monitors, and yet the FAA forced them to wear long-sleeved white shirts and ties. "People were fired for not wearing a white shirt — wear a pastel, you were gone," Torchia said. "We had to fight just to get short sleeves."

Torchia spent his career at the Oakland Air Route Traffic Control Center, a three-story brick and metal building actually located in Fremont. Built in the late 1950s, the Oakland Center is one of twenty major US control centers, handling all air traffic into or out of every Northern California airport. The Fremont controllers also are responsible for tracking planes over much of the Pacific Ocean. In all, they stand watch over nineteen million square miles, or nearly 10 percent of the Earth's surface.

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