Monday, September 04, 2006

Happy Labor Day, NATCA....

Somebody at the FAA has a rather finely honed sense of irony. They decided that Labor Day was a good occasion to put the screws on Air Traffic Controllers and their union, NATCA, by unilaterally imposing a contract that contains significant wage and work rule concessions (see AvWeb's story and NATCA's press release). The FAA has said for some time that they would do this after declaring an impasse in contract negotiations last April, but the timing and exact terms were uncertain. In fact, the cuts are deeper than what the FAA told Congress that they'd impose.

The most noteworthy changes to the work rules concern controller fatigue. Until now, controllers have been required to take a break once every two hours of duty time; this has long been recognized as a major factor in keeping controllers sharp over long duty periods at busy facilities, but the FAA deleted this provision. Another huge safety concern is that controllers can no longer declare themselves too fatigued to work. Pilots' unions have long recognized that fatigue is more dangerous than sickness and have fought to extend sick leave policy to fatigue. At my airline, a fatigue call makes you lose pay (you can't use sick time) but at least you're not subject to discipline. I dare say that many pilot unions would strike over fatigue policy because it's such a safety issue.

But NATCA can't strike, because they're federal employees. Recall that when PATCO struck in 1981, Reagan fired them all. So they have no leverage to force the FAA to bargain in good faith, and when the agency decides there's an impasse, NATCA has to accept whatever terms the FAA imposes. It seems to render the union completely moot. This should concern everyone who flies as a pilot or passenger, however they feel about unions, because NATCA has been an important watchdog where aviation safety is concerned. Do you think the FAA will always act in the interest of safety if not forced to? Consider that they had the gumption to impose work rules that increase the risk of controllers working fatigued at the very time that the press is raising questions about the role that controller fatigue may have played in the Lexington crash!

At this point the controllers have very few options. One is CHAOS - to work in such a way that multiple delays are introduced at various points in the system, compounding each other and creating massive gridlock in the air traffic system. If controllers simply started using six or seven miles of separation in situations where they only need three, you'd see massive ground hold delays for "rush hour" arrivals into the nation's busiest airports. While this wouldn't be good for the airlines, it'd at least force the public to look at what the FAA is doing.

Perhaps the most asinine rule change is the new dress code. Controllers have an infamously relaxed wardrobe, which makes perfect sense when your only connection with your "customers" is your voice across the radio. It's much like how many work-from-home entrepreneurs conduct business in their pajamas. The FAA is now requiring controllers to wear a collared shirt & dress slacks. I suspect many controllers will seize on this opportunity to demonstrate their contempt for the new rules foisted upon them. I know a few controllers read this blog - feel free to send pics of the new fashions you see in the cabs & behind the scopes! I'm personally hoping to see at least one pink leotard & feather boa....

10 Comments:

Anonymous zb said...

i just can't believe how much the current us administration f*cks up pretty much every detail of their domestic politics. what gets attention is all the international politics with funny stuff like freedom fries and axis of the evil and less funny stuff like wars, but it's just incredible how bad they are actually doing within the u.s. and are still not beaten out of office. the part about it that i get least is that they have their strongest support in those states where things look most broken -- even to the unaided eye. how come they get most votes in, for instance, the midwest, when you just have to take a greyhound from indy to dayton,oh and talk to yoiur seat-neighbour or look out of the window to see where money should rather be spent while more and more is spent on weapons and wars.

sorry if this has gotten out of control, ideology-wise, but the post above was just another detail on how much goes wrong in, uh, homeland.

1:37 AM  
Blogger Sam said...

ZB -

I'm certainly not gonna defend the administration on the ATC issue. The main thrust of your post seems to be frusteration that Bush is decreasing domestic spending in favor of Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. If that were true, Bush would be a lot more popular with fiscal conservatives than he is. The reality is that discretionary domestic spending has increased under Bush as much as it ever did under Clinton. You want federal projects in the Midwest? Republicans have been RAKING in the pork ever since 1994, particularly for their "base states" in the south & midwest. And meanwhile our deficit keeps climbing....

As far as what's wrong between Indy and Dayton, the urbanization and rural depopulation of America predated Bush&Co by a good 90 years. Perhaps you think the entire Midwest should look, feel, and act like New York or LA?

1:17 PM  
Blogger Jade said...

It's scary to hear such things as this new law conserning fatigue and controllers. Us pilots and anybody else that is involved in the aviation industry understand the dangerous consequenses of fatigue. The last thing I want to hear is that the people we call ATC are possibly not going to be as reliable as we hope they be. ATC has near just as much control over what happens to our plane as the pilots do, conserning safely navigating highly congested airspace. As for the slacks and collars, a continueing turn of this soceity towards the "look" of proffesionalism. Maybe it has something to do with how you treat your job when you dress up to go to it. Or maybe the work enviroment was just starting to get a little stinking and this was the politess way to let them all know...j/j

3:02 PM  
Anonymous joel said...

An interesting development that I had no idea was happening until i saw your blog. I had to write a monster research essay on the PATCO strike in history class last year, and one of the most interesting things i learned was how supportive Reagan was of PATCO during his 1980 election campaign... Funny how quickly he went from talking about "a spirit of cooperation between the President and the air traffic controllers" to firing them by the thousands. Now all the replacement controllers that were hired are starting to retire, but i'm not sure how/if that is significant in the current dispute.

Also, what do you think about the controller's responsibility for the lexington crash? I know controller fatigue was blamed for a few runway incursions at O'hare this year, but it seems like the pilots should shoulder most of the blame for lining up on the wrong runway.

7:55 PM  
Anonymous Vlad said...

I was actualy in the air on the labor day and I could feel the ATC (CLE center) being more cranky and uneasy then usual and I didn't realize why until I read your post.

8:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an air traffic controller at Salt Lake Center I've never seen morale as low as it is. Each day the rules are tightening and becoming more frustrating. Pay was cut for new controllers (even those currently in training) by 40%. We are no longer allowed to leave the facility to get something to eat. If you forget to bring food, you go without or settle for twinkies or pretzels in the vending machines. Working over 2 hours has become common place. We can no longer bring in even a box of donuts to share in the morning while working through the morning push. As for the dress code, no jeans, no shorts, even dress shorts. Many of these things are somewhat petty and could be tolerated, but the things they are doing with pay, and other items that are taking the focus off of doing the job for controllers is frustrating. Most controllers I know love doing the job...love doing the best they can to help the pilots, but absolutely hate the way they are treated by the FAA. It's like being a pilot. If you love flying, you will put up with a lot of crap just to do the job, but many people are rethinking the whole thing in light of the disrespect we are getting on a grand scale from FAA management. I could go on and on, but hopefully you get the picture. Posted anonymously for real fear of retribution by the FAA.

5:31 AM  
Blogger John said...

Before September 11th, I had the opportunity to take several ATC tours and got an up close view of how controllers work. From the tower in Palo Alto, to Oakland Center in Fremont, to the now defunct Bay Approach in Oakland, I was very impressed by the professionalism I saw. I walked away with a newfound appreciation and respect for the job that controllers do.

I am disappointed by the latest turn of events. Oppressive management techniques like dress codes, deleting required rest breaks, and not allowing people to leave to get food is just plain stupid. And dangerous. Regardless of what one might think of unions, this is precisely the kind of capricious decision-making that can happen and the kind of work rules that can be imposed when collective bargaining power is taken out of the equation.

As you point out so eloquently, it's not just the controllers who are suffering as a result of this crap.

3:59 AM  
Blogger Sam said...

Joel -

It's the media focusing on ATC's role in the LEX crash, so it doesn't have to make sense! But I don't think anybody is pinning responsibility on them, just recognizing that ATC was one last line of defense that didn't come through, and a factor in that was having one controller on duty who was quite fatigued at the time. It's pretty balsy of the FAA to make such sweeping changes with such a potential to decrease safety at the same time they're under the microscope.

9:49 AM  
Blogger Sam said...

Anonymous ZLC controller,

Thanks for commenting. This is basically the same thing I've been hearing from ATC'er friends, and it's really a crying shame. A lot of the rule changes seem to have less to do with saving the FAA money than punishing the controllers for not bending over voluntarilly. Aviation as a whole has sure become a joyless place lately.

9:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

excuse me anonymous salt lake center controller or any other controller who might read this, but i would like to know if controllers are seriously thinking about what Sam said in the blog about using chaos to protest deteriorating work rules and other greivances?

6:02 PM  

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