2005-03-10 / View From the Middle

Plenty Of Air Traffic, But Fewer Air Traffic Controllers View From The Middle

By Charles Rogers

In 1981, shortly after President Ronald Reagan came into office, he fired virtually hundreds of air traffic controllers who refused to end their illegal strike for higher wages, better hours, etc. (Better hours was a big factor because of the pressure controllers have in their day-to-day jobs).

However, it didn’t matter what the reason was at the time. What did matter was that their strike was crippling the country’s transportation system, virtually choking it to death. Reagan not only had to do something to get most of our airlines back into the air (there were a handful of management controllers doing the work in the emergency), but he also had to show that he would not — could not — be bent by the traffic controllers union, especially in these early days of his administration. If he did so, other unions would take the hint that they might be able to bend the tough guy themselves. So he came up with the dictum: Come back within two days or don’t come back at all. They didn’t come back within two days…and they lost their jobs.

The whole situation came home to me because I empathized with the controllers, having been an air traffic controller when I was in the Air Force years ’n years ’n years ago. At that time, we were only allowed to work no more than four 5-hour shifts per week. Twenty hours was the limit, supposedly because of the pressure, unless we were in battle circumstances, in which case nobody gave a damn about the hours (“Just land the damned plane already and let’s get the hell out of here!”).

No question that it’s a helluva job. Controllers became heroic figures in the past, specifically in instances where they got planes into places where, if not for them, planes would not know where they’re going (in Vietnam, for instance) or when they had to fly over certain areas without being caught, such as in the late 40s, when they dropped supplies into East Berlin during the blockade. Of course, there was the latest — and biggest — incident when they had to make sure every plane flying over the northeast United States — nearly 5,000 — landed immediately because of the 9/11 World Trade Center disaster, otherwise the planes would have been shot down as enemy aircraft by our own fighters.

Anyway, after Reagan wielded his hatchet, a new contingent of controllers was started. They came from near and far and they were given a good contract that also had certain stipulations about their hours and, oh, yes, about their retirement: It is mandatory that, because of the “burn out” factor, they retire by the age of 56 (I guess the powers-that-be in the FAA determine after that age a person’s brain could begin to atrophy!).

It has been about 25 years since the Reagan Massacre and, according to a published report, supposedly 25 percent of the 15,000 controllers will be resigning by about next year, certainly by 2007, and it will then snowball year by year. If you check out the statistics, it takes approximately five years to train an air traffic controller. Do the math. If the skies will be crowded with aircraft and there won’t be anyone around to tell them where to go and how to get there, the logical rationale would be to either not let as many planes in the sky or speed up the training.

I don’t want to be a boor, but take it from one who knows: To speed up the training could be dangerous. You don’t fool around with people’s lives.

Is there an answer? I guess you could do away with the mandatory retirement age — push it five years ahead while the training goes on (that could still be dangerous because of that “burn out-atrophy’ thing…ha, ha); I guess you could cut down on air traffic (again…ha, ha).

Or (ha, ha) you could take the train!

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