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?

By 1980, Torchia had become the union's regional vice president and a member of its national executive board. At the time, his fellow board members were smitten with Reagan. The onetime head of the Screen Actors Guild had wooed controllers during the presidential campaign, appearing at their annual convention and writing a letter in which he essentially promised to watch their backs.

Most controllers were military veterans with no qualms about supporting the Republican ex-governor. But Torchia didn't trust Reagan. "I said, 'This guy's going to break the union,'" he recalled telling his fellow board members. "I would never, ever vote to endorse that guy." But the rest of the board decided otherwise and voted 8-0-1 to endorse Reagan. Torchia was the lone holdout, choosing to abstain rather than further alienate his colleagues. PATCO became one of just a handful of American unions to turn its back on Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Torchia was right, of course. Once Reagan moved into the White House, his FAA took a hard-line stance in negotiations. But the controllers weren't worried. They told themselves that their jobs were so specialized and difficult that replacing them would mean endangering passengers. "We just figured there would be some sort of negotiated settlement," said Torchia, who sold his Fremont home two years ago and now lives in the Sierra foothills.

The controllers miscalculated badly. Moreover, the timing of their strike was atrocious. It was just eight months into Reagan's first term and only four months after the president was shot by John Hinckley. Inconvenience and flying had not yet become synonymous, and the flying public had no stomach for delayed or canceled flights. Americans wanted the president to stand up to the union.

At first, the controllers' strike was an impressive display of solidarity. On August 3, 1981, about 12,500 of the nation's 16,400 controllers walked off their jobs. "You would not believe the camaraderie and commitment we had," said Nils Moberg, who worked alongside Torchia at Oakland Center. "I knew two controllers who had less than three months to go before they retired who went on strike."

But Reagan responded forcefully. He ordered the controllers to get back to work in 48 hours or he would replace them permanently. About 1,000 controllers returned to their radar screens; then, in a move that garnered 64 percent approval ratings in the polls, the president fired the remaining 11,580 strikers. He also issued an executive order prohibiting the FAA from ever hiring them again.

Of course, because the controllers were federal government workers, it was illegal for them to strike in the first place. Moreover, Reagan's resolve was backed by a 1938 Supreme Court decision that gave employers the right to replace strikers with permanent scabs. But until Reagan led by example, few companies took advantage of the law. "They were highly skilled workers — if they could be replaced, then anybody could be replaced," explained Joseph McCartin, an assistant history professor at Georgetown University, who is writing a book on the strike.

Reagan changed the course of labor history. According to the US Labor Department, 20.1 percent of American workers belonged to a union in 1983, the first year for which comparable data is available. By 2005, the figure was just 12.5 percent. Union workers also often struck throughout the middle of the 20th century. On average, there were more strikes each year than major league baseball, basketball, and football games combined. Between 1950 and 1980, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, unions led an average of 298 major work stoppages each year.

In stark contrast, the number of stoppages involving more than a thousand workers nose-dived to only 46 annually from 1982 to 2000. Since 2000, that number has dropped below thirty. To be sure, the global economy and the outsourcing of American jobs also fueled the dramatic drop in strikes. But there's little doubt that Reagan was the spark. As McCartin noted in an August Chicago Tribune piece on the 25th anniversary of the controllers' strike, "strikes are seemingly less common now than hurricanes."

But the mass replacement of air traffic controllers did far more than just cripple the nation's unions.


After the strike, FAA managers mistakenly assumed that they could train almost anyone to be an air traffic controller. But over the years, the FAA had trouble finding enough people who could handle the job. "It just didn't work," Moberg said. Before the strike, the FAA rated 80 percent of controllers as capable of performing any controller's position. But by 1990, that number had dropped to 62 percent, according to a 1991 Los Angeles Times report.

Controllers are like pilots and athletes: Training is vital, but there's no substitute for the right stuff. Good controllers must be able to act decisively, remain calm, multitask for several hours, and think in three dimensions. Like most sports, air traffic control is a young person's game; mandatory retirement age is 56. Having a college diploma, meanwhile, is entirely irrelevant. Moberg said that of the 21 controllers in his 1973 graduation class from the FAA's Oklahoma City training academy, only one had a four-year degree.

In general, controllers work in three types of facilities — airport towers, Terminal Radar Approach Control offices, and major national centers such as the one in Fremont. Tower controllers handle landings and takeoffs, along with managing the immediately surrounding airspace. Once planes leave the airport's jurisdiction, they're passed to controllers at an approach control office; the one that controls Bay Area airspace is near Sacramento. They track planes for a short time before handing them off to major center controllers, who monitor them for most of the flight.

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