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.

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

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.


image
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.

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.

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.


image
"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.

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.

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."

The nontract, which is valid for the next five years, also no longer guarantees a ten-minute break every two hours of work. Taking a short break four times a day to get coffee or go for a walk might seem like a cushy perk on some jobs. But for a controller who simultaneously monitors about fifteen airplanes every minute of the day, a ten-minute break could be all that's needed to prevent another Cerritos.

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said the new rule, which says the breaks are now a "goal" but no longer required, merely gives supervisors more scheduling flexibility. "I think that it's pretty well proven that controllers can work longer on position than two hours — as long as they're not getting hammered," he said.

But the union argues that the FAA's crackdown on breaks is more likely the result of having too few controllers on the payroll. And at least one scientific study of workers in stressful jobs appears to contradict the FAA claims. According to 2003 research published in the British medical journal The Lancetby Professor Simon Folkard of the University of Wales, a leading expert on the effect of work schedules on job performance, the risk of accidents doubles as workers approach the two-hour mark without a break.

Not getting a breather is one thing, but forcing a tired controller to show up day after day is just asking for trouble. The Lexington controller, who got only two hours of sleep in the previous 24 hours because he had only nine hours off between shifts, might as well have downed a beer while on duty, said Charles Czeisler, professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School. "Sleeping only two hours in a 24-hour period impairs performance as if they had a blood alcohol of .05 percent," said Czeisler, who is also a senior physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "If there's no sleep for 24 hours, then it's as if they had a blood alcohol of .10 percent." In other words, Blakey's new rules are essentially placing drunken air traffic controllers at the helm.

Gregor of the FAA said that the no-sick-leave-when-tired rule is merely an attempt to curb abuse. "The use of sick leave among air traffic controllers was much, much higher than other FAA personnel," he said. He added that FAA supervisors will send home controllers who are too exhausted to track planes: "There is no way a manager will put a controller on position who is too tired to be on position. We're not going to compromise safety." But controllers say that's exactly what Blakey's FAA has done.

If controllers are right, then the witching hour for a sleep-induced accident is the graveyard shift. Such overnighters often come at the end of a quick turnaround. Typically, controllers will report to work at 7 a.m. and be off by 3 p.m. Then, after nine hours off, they'll return at midnight. Under FAA rules, the minimum time off between shifts is eight hours. At Oakland Center, many controllers commute to work from the Central Valley, where housing is cheaper. That means they might be home by 4:30 p.m. from a shift that ends at three, and then they'll have to jump back in their cars at 10:30 that night, leaving only six hours to eat, sleep, and be a parent.

Another problem is that the most difficult time for people to fall asleep is the early evening. "We're increasing the probability of sleep-related accidents," said Czeisler, who is also president of the Sleep Research Society Foundation. Asked about the prohibition of time off to rest, coupled with the crackdown on breaks and the routine irregular shifts, he noted, "They upset the body's circadian rhythms. You're setting the stage for fatigue-related errors."

The FAA appears unconcerned about such warnings. "It's up to controllers to make sure they get enough sleep on their days off," agency spokesman Gregor said. There also seems to be nothing controllers can do about it. Thanks to Reagan, they can't strike. And thanks to the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress, they're stuck with the nontract until 2011 — unless a Democratic president is elected in 2008 and decides to rip it up.

So for now, controllers will have to be content with pushing the envelope on the strict dress code that Blakey reinstated. Gregor said Blakey wanted to establish a professional workplace. "Attire in some facilities was getting extreme," he said. "There were people in shorts, flip-flops, and ratty T-shirts."

After Jeff Tilley showed up at Oakland Center last month in his kilt, the FAA immediately added kilts to the forbidden list, too. So he decided to wear a wig to work. "Hey, they never said, 'No hairpieces,'" he said, smiling. "Controllers are just trying to find ways to stand up and say, 'This is not right.'"

The FAA has since banned wigs as well.

Editor's note: The four controllers from Oakland Center who spoke on the record for this story did so as designated spokespersons for the air traffic controllers' union.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
New York Concert Tickets
Loading...