Air Traffic Controllers Propose System Reform: Put Us In Charge!

By on April 29, 2015 in Current Events with 47 Comments

On April 21, the Government Executive website ran an article about the “defederalization” of the U.S. air traffic control system. The article says that the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) supports this effort as a boon to safe air travel. The union went on to suggest an air traffic controller-owned organization apparently operated as non-profit or a quasi-government outfit.

To quote from Eric Katz’s article, “In addition to the non-profit private model, the union suggested air traffic control could become a government corporation or receive special funding exceptions that provide a long-term authorization. Of course, the latter two models would still come with the very congressional oversight the union is looking to avoid. NATCA noted, however, it would create a “leaner bureaucracy” and fewer implementation challenges than full privatization.”

A Little History (not too much, I promise)

August 3, 2015 marks the 34th anniversary of the air traffic controllers strike resulting in major upsets in air traffic movement and ultimately the firing of about 12000 of the controllers. Some have said, in retrospect, that those fired were lucky not to be prosecuted as the action violated a statutory criminal provision prohibiting a Federal employee strike.

Since 1981, a number of fortuitous events have come together to benefit those new hires who replaced those strikers who were banned from Federal employment after the strike. Among the benefits is a law establishing a unique human resources system for the Federal Aviation Administration and allows the Agency to set pay without congressional approval for eligible employees. Replacing the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), decertified as a Federal union after the strike, NATCA organized the controllers, was recognized as their exclusive representative and gained the right to bargain labor agreements on their behalf.

Bear with me, there’s a little more history relevant to the discussion. In 1970, more than 200,000 mailmen (and perhaps some mail women but certainly many fewer then) engaged in a job action that looked a lot like a strike. Unwilling to fire 200,000+ mailmen, the Congress soon tanked the U.S. Post Office and quickly (about a year later) created the U.S. Postal Service, a quasi-governmental Agency with a so-called corporate structure and resulting operation freedom. Anyone who read any news about the USPS over the last 45 years but particularly recently, might have the temerity to ask, “How’d that work out for you, Congress?”

So here we are more than a generation after postal reform, poised on reforming an antiquated, and some say broken, air traffic control system, arguably as important now as speedy first class mail delivery was in the 1970s. Are there any lessons to be learned from the 1970 events applicable to the 2015 air traffic deliberations?

Some Questions

Why might NATCA want to see anything less than a complete privatization of the air traffic system?

A little known and even less publicized fact is that the union’s i.e., NATCA’s representatives, offices and operations are almost entirely funded by the Federal Aviation Administration. If Air Traffic Control were fully privatized, the union could never afford the level of funding FAA lays out to subsidize the union under the statute. I believe a look at the number of union representatives on the clock both full time (there are a substantial number of these) and part-time would, by itself, cost in excess of 5-10 times the dues currently paid by the controllers. This amount doesn’t even count office space, computers, furniture, meeting space, phone and internet services, and other subsidized expenses. In fact, I’ll bet those controllers involved in lobbying Congress to achieve NATCA’s goals did so at mostly taxpayer expense. So is NATCA avoiding real privatization because it will bankrupt without a government subsidy?

What lessons from the creation, history and current status of the Postal Service should Congress consider in deciding the future of Air Traffic Control?

In 1970, following a strike in some areas, Congress rushed through a reorganization of the old U.S. Post Office to avoid further job actions. The legislation of 1971 created a quasi-governmental entity that left wages and benefits determinations to negotiations between representatives of the postal unions. This privatization was supposed to produce a leaner, more customer focused institution. A big question that exists after 45 years is, How’d that work out for you Congress? Does America need another “Board of Governors” type outfit minimally accountable to either the public or the Hill? FedEx, UPS and others radically demonstrate the deficiencies inherent in a hidebound, union dominated bureaucracy that is way too big to respond to economic, technological and fundamental communications changes that have undermined the need for it. I don’t know about you, but almost all my snail mail is advertising I’d rather not get or communications from the email, Twitter, Facebook or direct payment challenged.

What advantage is there to be gained by a controller-owned entity as proposed by NATCA?

History speaks to us again on this issue in the very airline business we’re talking about. Remember when United Airlines became employee owned in 1994? It lasted exactly 8 years. It took over three years after that to emerge from bankruptcy, merge with Continental and return to private ownership. Does anyone think that NATCA’s leadership, the likely new executives of the proposed employee owned entity, are more skilled than the management of the failed Group at United Airlines. Doing what NATCA wants is the equivalent of wishful and apparently self-interested thinking.

So what’s to be done?

Since there’s little chance of an agreement between the current Hill and White House on addressing the important matters at hand, perhaps they could agree to a gathering of experts from the airlines, airports, FAA, NTSB and other stakeholders, including the controllers, to suggest a plan (perhaps with BRACish options) to resolve the outstanding issues, not just problems in modernizing air traffic and how we will fund those resolutions.

By the way, I have never written anything about NATCA that failed to get almost violent reactions from what I like to call the anti-critic cowboys. Despite what some commenters say, I write to provoke discussion, not Bob beaters. To quote Salman Rushdie, “One of the problems with defending free speech is you often have to defend people that you find to be outrageous and unpleasant and disgusting.

At the risk of repeating myself, the above represents my opinions (unless I’ve identified facts) and is attributable to no one else.

Also, anyone looking for training on holding employees accountable, drop me a line.

© 2016 Bob Gilson. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Bob Gilson.

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.

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