Air Traffic Controllers' Sneaky Job Action

Ronald Reagan fired government air traffic controllers (ATCs) in 1981 when PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, their union at the time) called an illegal strike, demanding higher wages, union control over working conditions, and a 32-hour work week.

Even in today’s union-friendly Obama administration, striking is so ’80s—so disruptive, such a public relations no-no.  And so unnecessary.  There’s a new sophistication at the new union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA).  And it’s working.  The union is using the ATCs’ own hideous work performance to justify higher wages, a bigger budget, and more controllers.

In the last few weeks, ATCs have been caught sleeping during overnight shifts in six airport control towers from Reno to Reagan National.  One ATC was caught watching a DVD on a TV screen rather than the radar screen that showed incoming planes seeking guidance to land.  This week, an ATC allowed a military plane too close to a plane carrying First Lady Michelle Obama.

National news stories blossomed like spring flowers, carrying dire warnings of unsafe conditions.  The pilots union demanded action.  The President called government technology systems “horrible.”  Planes were forced to land without direction from federal employees.  The first lady was in danger. 

Hank Krakowski, head of air traffic at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), resigned.  FAA chief Randy Babbitt ordered a “top-to-bottom” review of the air traffic control system, criticized “unprofessional practices,” and demanded that “this conduct must stop immediately.”  Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was outraged.  Not one sleeping controller was fired.

A closer reading of these events shows that all planes landed safely in every instance, either on their own or with control from another tower.  There was no safety issue.  Even the FAA denied the first lady was in any danger.  In every case, the reason for the single-duty ATC was the lack of overnight traffic at that airport. 

Now don’t get me wrong.  There’s no excuse for sleeping on the job, especially a job where sleeping might possibly endanger someone.

But what an excuse to pad the payroll and add more union dues-paying controllers.  Twenty-five airports that had one controller overnight were immediately ordered to add at least one more, regardless of the lack of traffic, including San Diego, which has an overnight curfew.

It now looks like the whole “sleeping controller” story was a job action.

Consider the timing of the news stories.  Within four weeks, a half-dozen sleeping controllers from Seattle to Reno to Kansas City,  from Florida to Washington, D.C., were discovered by intrepid investigative journalists.  Not.

Each of these stories was leaked for maximum exposure.

Sleeping ATCs are not a new phenomenon.  This issue has arisen again and again, each time the union (whether PATCO or NATCA) has been pressing for concessions.  Tired controllers have been the subject of National Transportation Safety Board investigations into plane crashes, including the 2006 crash of a regional airliner near Lexington, Ky., that killed 49 of 50 aboard.

In fact, the last time this issue came up, the union successfully got the FAA to require eight hours of rest between shifts.  Why are ATCs still sleeping on the job?  The FAA just announced this week that the new rule will be nine hours.

But NATCA wants more.  The union goal is to allow ATCs to get paid to sleep on the job, with enough other controllers present to fill in for the sleeping ones.  After all, they have nap rooms in control towers in Europe.  Why not here?

When these leaked sleeping controller stories did not produce the necessary public panic to politically support NATCA’s demands, it was the first lady’s turn.  It isn’t just the traveling public that should be demanding “reform,” the President’s wife could be in danger if something isn’t done.

Did the leaders of NATCA send the President a note saying, in effect, “It would be a shame if something happened to the first lady”?

Is the modern public employee labor leader modeled after characters in the Godfather movies?

AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) President Herb Sanders said in a protest in Lansing, Mich., that “if necessary, we will use the valuable public-service jobs that we perform as a weapon and shut this state down.”

Public employee unions will weaponize public service to get their way.  Looks like NATCA is following the same script.