Few government employees have more important
responsibilities than the federal air traffic controllers whose primary job is
to protect the safety of the ever-growing number of air travelers. Yet few
federal employees are more badly treated by their government bosses.
The bosses, who run the Federal Aviation Administration -
the FAA - have been mistreating the controllers since at least 1981. That's
when President Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,500 controllers who, seeking to
improve their onerous working conditions, struck in violation of the law that
prohibits strikes by federal employees.
It's been downhill ever since for the controllers. The
Bush appointees who've been running the FAA for the past eight years have
adamantly refused to grant controllers even the basic right to bargain
collectively for a contract that would guarantee them decent working
The controllers' working conditions are so bad that
nearly one-fifth of the controllers have quit over the past two years, reducing
their number to the lowest level since 1992.
That has left many traffic control towers badly
understaffed and has forced the controllers remaining on the job to work long,
fatiguing work shifts of up to 10 hours, with fewer and shorter breaks, and
little time to rest between shifts - often for six days a week, sometimes for
all seven days. In some locations, control towers have had to be shut down for
hours at a time for lack of controllers.
The shortage of experienced controllers to guide
commercial and private aircraft is a serious threat to safety - the possibility
of improperly guided planes smashing into each other in the air or on runways,
or going dangerously off course and crashing. Although there have been no such
incidents recently, there have been some two-dozen reports of near-misses in
the past year. The shortage of controllers is also a main reason that so many
commercial flights are late leaving and late arriving.
The controllers are working under a contract, but it's a
contract that was imposed on them by the FAA in 2006 after the agency rejected
union demands for improvements during negotiations for a new contract.
Rather than improving conditions, the imposed contract
made them even worse. It took from controllers their previous right to take
rest breaks after every two hours of their eye-straining, highly stressful work
of tracking aircraft paths across radar screens. They lost their right to
refuse to work overtime, no matter how stressed or fatigued they might be. The
contract also set the pay of new hires almost one-third lower than that of
"The work environment is horrible, there's no
respect for people," says President Patrick Forrey of the controllers'
union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Finally, however, air
traffic controllers have genuine hopes that their situation might improve substantially,
thanks to the election of Barack Obama. The right to negotiate a new contract
is what they want -- and need -- above all, and Obama has pledged to try to get
it for them.
As a senator in 2006, Obama introduced a bill that was
designed to stop the FAA from imposing a contract on the controllers and
instead negotiate a new one with them, only to have the bill blocked by Senate
Republicans. During his presidential campaign, Obama faulted the FAA for
failing to treat controllers "with the respect they deserve."
Obama promises that as president, he'll direct his
appointees to the Federal Aviation Administration to do what Bush's appointees
refused to do. That is to work with the controllers and their union "to
restore morale and improve working conditions," in accord with Obama's
intent to return to the Clinton-era policy of requiring the FAA and all other
federal agencies to work cooperatively with their employees' unions.
That should be - and apparently will be - a high priority
for the Obama administration.
Copyright (c) 2009 Dick Meister