Creating a Fear of Flying

Is the American public able to fly safely? Is the air traffic system out of control? Labor negotiations seem to be bringing out the worst aspects and confirming our fear of flying.

Most Americans, including most federal employees, realize that federal agencies influence and impact many aspects of our lives. In a world of complex systems and huge bureaucracies, we want to feel secure knowing that the federal government is doing a good job in running systems and structures alien to virtually outside of the system.

Air traffic control is one of these complex systems. Most readers probably don’t know much about how our air traffic system works. Moreover, they don’t really want to know much about it–except that it works and the traveling public can be reasonably assured of a safe flight before stepping on to a plane that is about to carry people high in the air, through wind, rain and storms, with thousands of other flights all going on around the country at the same time.

Hollywood understands and exploits our fear of flying and has offered up plenty of disaster movies showing people dying in plane crashes. While most of us don’t admit it, getting on an airplace and experiencing routine air turbulence causes anxiety–perhaps with flashbacks to the Airport movies.

The reality is, we don’t know what goes on in air traffic control towers. We rely on the Federal Aviation Administration to keep the flying public safe and secure. Those of us who have been flying for a number of years (as a passenger) probably remember the rhetoric that preceded the strike by the air traffic controllers and the subsequent firing of many of those controllers by President Reagan. I recall getting on an airplane at that time wondering if it was still safe to fly. It apparently was still safe and the replacements that came in must have done a reasonably good job, despite the harsh accusations and safety concerns raised during the labor negotiations and during the strike.

And, when current negotiations between the air traffic controllers union and the agency leads to charges, counter-charges, and implied threats to the safety of the American public, it causes problems. Most of us don’t know if the union is trying to scare us into putting pressure on the agency so that the controllers can get more money, more power and even better benefits (which are already way ahead of most federal employees). And, when the agency responds with calm reassurance that flying is still safe (over the union shouting in the background that the agency is lying to make the union look bad in labor negotiations and to pay controllers less than they should be paid), most of us don’t know what to believe. (See That 70’s Show! FAA/Air Traffic Controllers Back At It!)

Enough horror stories come out about the attitude and culture of life in an air traffic control tower to make most people think it sounds like a form of gangsterism going on where the people with the biggest mouth and the loudest, most belligerant attitudes have taken over the system. (See Nintendo (With Real Planes) in the Control Tower.) In fact, the Office of Special Counsel gave an award to a female air traffic controller last year for having the fortitude to speak out about the intimidation and testosterone driven games going on in one FAA facility. (See Whistleblower Gets Award for Exposing Air Traffic Games and Cover-Up)

She apparently paid the price for having expressed her views. (See Payback in the Control Tower.) There is little doubt that most members of the flying public are appreciative of her efforts to make sure our flights are at least a little safer but, at the same time, we can’t help but wonder if the thugs terrorizing that one controller are doing similar work at other facilities and, if they are, what does that mean for those of us who want to fly safely?

Who do we believe and is it safe to fly? Are the air traffic controllers playing games with airplanes and trying to scare the public into unnecessarily hiring more union members? Are the tactics and rhetoric designed solely to require the agency to pay outrageous salaries and benefits just to ensure that the employees come to work and do their jobs without creating problems for the rest of the country?

Most of us will never know. The rhetoric will certainly continue to fly as long as the current negotiations are going on.

A new report issued by the Federal Aviation Administration provides some assurance that the adults are trying to regain control of a system that appears to be spinning out of control. While the report strives to assure the public the system is safe, it is actually a little frightening. In effect, it confirms that there was little management control of schedules, that there were threats and intimidation in the control tower and that there was significant abuse of leave. In effect, one could read into this that there was no control in the tower and the flying public was blithely flying in and around one of the largest metropolitan areas of the world.

Here is what the report says:

"First, management of the TRACON took back full control of all aspects of the schedule. We did this by canceling ill-advised agreements entered into with the local union in the early 1990’s that compromised our authority to set work schedules, determine staffing, and allocate overtime. Second, we changed the schedule from an inefficient schedule that maximized staff on two non-peak weekdays and maximized unnecessary overtime, to a more reasonable schedule that efficiently distributes days off and staff available to match aircraft traffic. The former schedule required unnecessary overtime. With the assistance of investigators from the IG’s office – who have been permanently on-site at the facility for the past 7 months – we took immediate action to curb sick leave abuse and addressed threats and intimidation to ensure a professional environment in the control room. We also turned over all evidence of intimidation and other abuses to the IG’s office. Finally, as a result of the operational errors discovered, we imposed new training requirements and performance enhancing actions for employees and supervisors."

A couple of things are clear: The existing system of labor relations in the FAA isn’t working well. Second, there is a culture in the FAA, at least among the controllers, that does not serve the public’s best interest. Third, FAA management has (or at least had) given up trying to manage effectively.

It is hard to imagine being able to regain control in a system as complex and as large as the air traffic control system. From the outside looking in, it seems clear that FAA management gave up managing and the union turned to threats and intimidation as a way of gaining power and control.

This doesn’t sound like a government agency that is capable of doing its job. Most of us wish everyone involved good luck and best wishes. One can’t help but wonder if it can be fixed at all or if it will just keep bumbling along until there is a horrible accident that forces Congress and the Administration to have the fortitude to do what it takes to ensure the safety of the public.

Let’s hope the negotiations between the FAA and the air traffic controller’s union conclude quickly and the agency can turn to fixing its obvious problems.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47