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?

At Oakland Center, which employs 252 controllers, each one manages about fifteen planes at any given moment of an eight-hour shift. Each keeps watch over a specific section of airspace, talks to every pilot who flies into that sector, and tracks each plane's speed, heading, and altitude. When a plane leaves one controller's airspace, it is passed on to the next controller, who may be seated in the next chair. These controllers' primary responsibility is to prevent midair collisions.

By 1985, it was clear the Reagan firings had taken a toll. According to a report by the Government Accounting Office, the replacement controllers were seriously overworked and demoralized. About 65 percent reported that they routinely handled too many planes, 43 percent said they suffered from low morale, and 60 percent said they were forced to work too many hours without breaks, according to news accounts. PATCO disbanded two years after the strike, but after the replacement controllers grew disgusted with Reagan's FAA, they formed a new union — the National Air Traffic Controllers' Association.

The case of William White illustrates one of the ways these pressures eventually affected air safety. Reagan's FAA hired White in 1983. On Sunday, August 31, 1986, he faced a workload he would later describe to authorities as "generally light." His equipment later indicated that a blip flashed again and again on his radar screen, but he would swear that it wasn't there. The blip came from a single-engine Piper airplane flown by a 53-year-old man, whose passengers were his wife and daughter.

It was about noon on a clear California day, but the Piper's pilot was inexperienced, and he became disoriented, wandering into airspace reserved for commercial and commuter planes. His family later said he may have had a heart attack, but whatever the case, it was White's job to monitor the airspace. At the time, White was guiding an Aeromexico DC-9 from Mexico City on its approach to Los Angeles International Airport with 64 passengers and crew members on board.

The Aeromexico pilots were completely stunned when the Piper clipped them in midair. Instantly, the two planes broke apart and fell from the sky. Burning airplane parts and bodies rained down on the Los Angeles County suburb of Cerritos. The fiery debris destroyed five homes and damaged seven others. Eighty-two people died, including everyone aboard both planes and fifteen people on the ground.

The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the Piper pilot and the FAA air traffic control system in general, but not White. According to news accounts, White testified during a hearing that the single-engine plane "was not on my radar scope." But aviation experts directly contradicted his claim. In a trial that stemmed from a lawsuit brought by victims' family members, experts testified that they had analyzed White's equipment and found that the Piper had blipped on his radar screen 62 times in the minutes before it struck the DC-9. A 1989 federal jury concluded that he also was at fault for the accident.

The Cerritos collision was the fourth fatal crash involving commercial or commuter planes in which controllers were at least partially to blame for an accident that occurred after the strike. The first was in January 1982, when a World Airways DC-10 skidded off the end of an icy runway and plunged into Boston Harbor. During the next five years, the Cerritos crash would be followed by seven more fatal controller errors.


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"They say it's all about dollars and cents," controller Dustin Byerly said. "But we're talking about people’s lives here. It's about safety."
photo: Sean Donnelly

Domenic Torchia became a stockbroker after Reagan fired him. Nils Moberg took up carpentry and homebuilding on the Peninsula. According to Torchia, who closely monitored the fortunes of his fellow union members, five hundred to a thousand fired controllers landed jobs with the US military after the strike. The rest took other employment. Most of them loved being civilian controllers, and nearly all believed they would never get a chance to be one again.

But that all changed with the election of Bill Clinton. "I remember it clearly," Moberg said. "It was August 12, 1993, and I was listening to KGO radio and they were saying that Clinton was going to allow all the old air traffic controllers to come back." The new president had lifted the hiring ban. Two years later, Clinton issued a second executive order, prohibiting the federal government from doing business with companies that fire striking workers and replace them permanently.

About 1,100 of the controllers fired by Reagan were eventually rehired by Clinton's FAA, according to Torchia. Approximately 3,500 applied, but about a thousand had become too old to pass the physical. Another thousand or so were turned down, he estimated, and the rest eventually gave up. Torchia and Moberg were rehired at the Oakland Center in 1998. Torchia retired in 2004; Moberg is still there.

The rehirings set in motion the safest decade in the history of commercial and commuter flying in the United States — aside from the special case of 9/11. According to the NTSB's own analysis, 1989 was the worst year in the past twenty for US-owned commercial planes in terms of total fatal accidents per miles flown. That year, 131 people died in eight fatal accidents when US-owned commercial planes flew more than 4.3 million miles. The best year was 2002, when there were no fatal accidents and US commercial airliners logged more than 6.9 million miles. In fact, passengers boarding airplanes between 1993 and 2005 were nearly three times less likely to be involved in a fatal accident than those traveling between 1985 and 1992.

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