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?

Of course, controller skill and experience are not the only factors that affect air-travel safety. Flying in general has become much safer in the past fifteen years. Pilot error remains by far the most common reason for crashes, and the decline in fatal accidents coincided with a corresponding drop in serious pilot errors. "The single most important factor is improved education — primary flight instruction," said Chris Dancy of the Air Safety Foundation, a nonprofit group representing pilots of small planes.

But the record of air traffic controllers has improved dramatically since the early '90s rehirings (see sidebar, "Out of Control"). The Clinton administration further solidified its relationship with the controllers in 1998, when FAA chief Jane Garvey agreed to the best contract the union ever had. The pact gave controllers significant raises and a salary structure that allowed fully certified controllers to earn a base salary of $127,000 a year. By contrast, the average controller in 1981 made $31,000 a year. Under the Garvey contract, controllers were still overworked, stressed, and using out-of-date equipment, but at least they felt respected. They also were comfortable: Clinton's FAA relaxed the dress codes.

When George W. Bush moved into the White House in January 2001, he surprised controllers by keeping Garvey on board. But she resigned the following year, and Bush appointed Marion C. Blakey, a Republican who had headed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration during his father's presidency.

Union president Jeff Tilley says controllers age fast.
photo: Sean Donnelly
Union president Jeff Tilley says controllers age fast.

Details

Editor's note: This article appeared originally in the East Bay Express.

At first, she calmed controllers' fears by extending Garvey's contract for two years and calling it a "win-win" for both the FAA and the union. But the era of cooperation was about to end. As soon as the two-year extension expired in 2005, Blakey took a hard-nosed approach to bargaining that would have made Reagan proud. She argued that the old contract was more generous than the FAA could afford, and demanded that the union agree to $1.9 billion in wage cuts.

Blakey argued that lagging airline fares since 9/11 were hurting the FAA's budget, three-fourths of which comes from airline taxes. Operating costs, meanwhile, had jumped from $4.6 billion in 1996 to $8.2 billion in 2005. To drive home her demands, Blakey hired Joe Miniace, a high-profile antilabor negotiator, to lead the FAA's bargaining team. Miniace has a history of in-your-face confrontations. In 2003, he forced a shutdown of all West Coast seaports when he locked out the longshoremen's union during a contract dispute.

The controllers' union ultimately proposed a contract that it claimed would save the FAA $1.4 billion. But FAA spokesman Ian Gregory said Blakey was skeptical, so she halted negotiations in April 2006. After all, she had an ace in the hole. Under a Clinton-era law, Congress ultimately mediates pay disputes between the FAA and the controllers. And this past summer, the Republican congressional leadership allowed Blakey to unilaterally implement her demands.

Blakey's "nontract," as controllers now call it, went into effect September 3, and created a two-tiered pay system by slashing the wages of new controllers by 31.5 percent. Once they become fully credentialed, they'll earn $87,000 a year compared to $127,000 under the old contract. Blakey reasoned that the FAA needed the two-tiered system because it will have to replace three-quarters of its workforce in the next decade, since most of the Reagan-era replacements will soon reach retirement age. The FAA expects to hire and train 12,500 controllers by 2015.

But a closer look at the nontract reveals that it cuts pay for more than just rookies. Controllers such as Dustin Byerly, who has completed much of his training but has not yet reached journeyman status, may never be paid what they were promised. When Byerly became a controller in 2002, the FAA told him he would earn $127,000 within five years. But now it looks as if he will be stuck at $108,000 indefinitely. There are one hundred other so-called "developmental" controllers in the same boat at Oakland Center alone. "It's very discouraging," he said. "People have accepted jobs, picked up, and moved their lives based on information that now turns out not to be accurate."

A salary of $87,000 may sound like a lot of money to a lot of people. And the controllers are keenly aware that the public sometimes views them as well-paid whiners. But it's also true that they have one of the toughest jobs anywhere. Who among us holds the lives of tens of thousands of people in our hands each day? Plus, they have crazy schedules. The typical Oakland Center controller starts at a different time every day, must routinely work weekends and graveyard shifts, and must work two eight-hour shifts within one 24-hour period every week.

Year after year, controllers miss Christmases and Thanksgivings with their families, their spouses' birthdays, or their kids' soccer matches. "We age fast with the hours we work and the stress levels we have; that's why we have to retire by age 56," said Tilley, the 46-year-old Oakland Center union president, who lives in Union City. "It's like being a football player or a baseball player. We only have a certain amount of time to make money — and then we're done."

But under the nontract, most controllers will be lucky to reach 56.


Like most kids, controller Debra Price's six-year-old twins sometimes keep her up at night when they're sick. Her husband shares the burden, but he's a controller, too. Every parent of young children has to cope at some point with extreme sleep deprivation, but for controllers, who must be hyper-alert at work, the lack of rest can be brutal. "It's killer when you have kids during the cold and flu season," said Price, who commutes to Oakland Center each day from her home in Pleasanton. "If you have to work overtime — and we've been working six-day workweeks since June — you come home, you make dinner, you put the kids to bed, you try to sleep an hour or two, and then you go back to work and work all night."
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