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Sky Trip: Air Traffic Controllers Burned Out by FAA Rules

AFL-CIO blogger Tula Connell is substituting this week for Jordan Barab.


If you traveled over the holidays and made it back safely, thank an air traffic controller. The nation’s air controllers are doing a monumental job in the face of constant attacks by the Bush administration’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

In the past few years, the FAA repeatedly has cut staffing at air traffic control towers. The FAA employed 15,606 controllers in 2002, according the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), but now that number has shrunk to 14,305 while air traffic continues to grow.

Further, the FAA has decreased the amount of time between work shifts, forcing controllers to work even when they have not had sufficient rest. Never mind that controller fatigue may have contributed to the Comair crash that killed 49 people in Lexington, Ky., last year. The lone air traffic controller on duty had only nine hours between two work shifts—and only two hours of sleep before going back on duty, according to the Associated Press. For years before the crash, Lexington controllers and their supervisors repeatedly had voiced concern about staffing issues at the airport.

Over the Labor Day weekend, the FAA unilaterally imposed new work rules on air traffic controllers—rules that NATCA says pose real and potentially dangerous consequences for the safety of airline passengers and crews.


·         The new rules cut pay for current and future traffic controllers by as much as 30 percent, reduce pensions and, according to some aviation experts, could prompt more than 4,000 of the current 14,000 controller workforce to retire, exacerbating an already critical controller shortage.

·         Controllers who do not feel they have gotten enough rest before a shift would be forced to work anyway. Controllers also can no longer take a break after two hours on the job, a longstanding practice that controllers say was a major way to fight fatigue.

The FAA move was a “brazen, arrogant trampling of the collective bargaining process,” NATCA President Pat Forrey says:

It’s like getting fired on Christmas. It’s the worst, punch-in-the-gut blow to the morale of this workforce imaginable. But our position is very simple: We do not consider the imposed work rules to be valid because they were not negotiated and have not been ratified by the NATCA membership.

The FAA-imposed contract also creates a two-tier wage structure—an age-old, union-busting technique. Although you wouldn’t know it from much of the mainstream media,  NATCA offered more than $1.4 billion in pay and benefit cuts. Rather than proceeding with contract negotiations based on the union’s cost-savings proposal, the FAA cut off talks last April and declared an impasse. That move enabled the agency to impose the contract, which includes signficantly lower wages for new hires.

What is it about air traffic controllers that Republican administrations don’t like? Or, to rephrase the question: What is it about ensuring passenger air safety that Republican administrations don’t like?

When Ronald Reagan was president, he broke the air controllers union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), by firing 11,000 controllers who went out on strike in 1981 for a shorter workweek and higher pay.

In addition to being forced to work on radar screens controlling traffic for more than two hours without a break, controllers now are required to follow a “dress code,” which, while not onerous, is another means by which to badger an already fatigued workforce.

Michael Conley, president of the NATCA local union in Dallas, told The New York Times the dress code was about more than clothes.

“It’s absolutely a power thing,” he said. “They want to show they’re in charge and this is how we’re going to do it, and if you don’t like it, quit.”

After all, most controllers work in dark rooms far from public view. The Bush administration’s obsession with dress codes is just one of many prods to make life miserable on the job: The FAA says controllers no longer are guaranteed two consecutive weeks of vacation and vacations can be canceled at the last minute. Controllers scheduled to work on holidays can be called off a few hours before and lose the holiday pay.

In a recent special report, the Gannett News Service looks at the implications of these FAA moves for passenger safety. Among the findings of the report, “Troubled towers: How safe are our skies?”: 

  • The number of controllers who chose to retire exceeded the FAA’s expectations for the third year in a row. About 70 percent of the FAA’s controllers will become eligible to retire through 2015. Short staffing is causing some controllers to work 10-hour days and six-day weeks periodically, increasing the possibility of mistakes due to fatigue, according to the union.
  • Mistakes made by controllers rose by 68 percent between 1998 and 2005, according to FAA data.

A 22-year veteran air traffic controller, who must remain anonymous for fear of employer retaliation, recently sent us at the AFL-CIO a description of the schedule of a typical Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC). The controller describes the “quick turnaround schedule” as typical.

Every night, hundreds if not thousands of ATC’ers [air traffic controllers] in this country work a day shift (typically from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.), then report back to work that night, eight or nine hours later. I personally have done this on and off for 22 years. This year (we bid different schedules each year and sometimes it can vary) I am assigned the following:

Sun .                4 p.m.midnight
2 p.m.–10 p.m.
7 a.m.-3 p.m.
6 a.m.–2 p.m.
11:30 p.m.–7:30 a.m.

This is the typical schedule a controller in a center works.  You’ll notice there are two short ‘turnarounds’ with about nine hours between shifts. (Monday night to Tuesday morning, then again Wednesday afternoon to Wednesday night.) This compresses a five-day workweek almost into four days.

Monday night, I rush home, try to relax and go to bed for about five-and-a-half-to-six hours of sleep (one has to commute and eat and unwind and shower and whatever else in those nine hours).  The alarm always seems to go off too early….   

Wednesday afternoon is the same—rush home (through the afternoon commute, so it’s a stressful drive in itself), walk dog, visit with wife/kids, eat, try to relax, take care of whatever daily ‘emergencies’ have popped up, then try to force myself to sleep (which can be difficult when it’s still light out and the sounds of early evening life go on around you). On a good evening, I get four hours.  A typical evening I get 2.5.  That’s right, 2.5  to four hours of sleep for an already sleep-deprived mind and body that has been going all week.

More reason to ask: What is it about ensuring passenger air safety that Republican administrations don’t like?

And if you still have a plane to catch, check out NATCA’s website, It lists the top 10 Worst Lists, such as “Most Delayed Departure Airports” and “Worst Delayed Flights,” enabling travelers to make informed decisions about their flight plans, based on historical and live flight data.  It’s not the airline industry’s favorite site.

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Jordan Barab

Jordan Barab