Two days after Nixon broke the letter carriers’ strike the air traffic controllers walked off their jobs and stayed out for three weeks. The controllers called in sick, attempting to avoid the still legal penalties for striking.
The air traffic controller has the most difficult job in the aviation industry. The airline pilot’s workload is reduced by the auto-pilot, the co-pilot and the flight engineer. And the pilot is limited to 85 flying hours a month. Controllers face constant pressure and must make hundreds of correct- immediate- decisions ten hours a day, six days a week.
The controller uses radar and radio to keep planes separated. Often the pilot does not even know where he is. When planes head toward busy airports for landing, the controller brings them in separating them by the legal limit of 3 miles. And 3 miles at 180 knots approach speed is only 1 minute of flying time. The controllers had to organize against the FAA to maintain this 3 mile limit. Controllers have told me that there are near mid-air collisions in the clouds that pilots never know about. When planes change their routing to avoid thunderstorms the safety margin is especially thin.
The controller is at the mercy of antique and inadequate equipment. At the Kennedy Approach Control center the radar failed while a controller was bringing six planes into JFK. The controller sent the first plane up, the second one down, the third to the right, and the fourth to the left. The fifth one he told to continue straight ahead. And to plane six he said "I’m sorry buddy, you’re going to have to stop right where you are."
When the radio transmitter fails, the controller must watch silently on radar as targets converge and hopefully keep on going.
During the 1960s the volume and speed of air traffic increased phenomenally. But the government spent little money on improving and modernizing the air traffic control system. From 1964 to 1968 no controllers were hired. This meant that each controller had to handle many more planes. To prevent delays the controllers were forced to violate the government’s own safety rules.
In 1968 the controllers threw out a government union and organized PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization). They began "Operation Air Safety" in the summer of 1968. They collectively refused to squeeze planes dangerously close together.
Since 1968 the government has been hiring controller trainees. But it takes 3 to 4 years to train a man for radar traffic control. In the meantime the regular controllers have the added burden of training the new men in addition to doing their jobs. Often the trainees learn by controlling actual planes. In Puerto Rico nineteen persons lost their lives when a plane was sent into a mountain by a trainee. His instructor was busy with regular duties.
The major high-density control centers were the heart of the "sick-out." Most of the present controllers were hired in the 1956-58 period and are now in their mid-thirties. Their health and ability to control traffic is failing due to the constant strain. A recent medical survey of controllers found 68 percent have chest pains, 81 percent vomited blood, and 95 percent had visual disturbance (double vision). The FAA will not let them transfer to other less intense centers. To retire they must have 30 years of service or be 55 years old.
Last summer FAA boss, John Shaffer, testified before a congressional committee that the controllers were not underpaid or overworked. Spontaneously controllers across the country called in sick for several days. Since that time, the FAA has stepped up harrassment of PATCO members. PATCO lost its dues checkoff privilege.
Before the recent strike the FAA had refused to negotiate the PATCO demands: 20 years retirement, 30 hour week, higher pay, and better equipment. The final blow came when the FAA gave involuntary transfers to three Baton Rouge PATCO members. Three thousand five hundred controllers called in sick out of a total of 8500 workers.
During the sick-out, the controllers came under intense pressure from the FAA and the airlines. The airline organization (the Air Transport Association) sued each controller individually for damages. The suit is still pending. The FAA sent telegrams of dismissal and suspension to the "sick" controllers. The government forced the PATCO officers to call off the strike; and the officers publicly ordered the men to return to work. In consequence, the issues were confused for the public and for other aviation workers.
The FAA used supervisors who had little current experience and trainees to keep the system going during the sick-out. The rate of near mid-air collision was four times normal. The controllers tried to get the pilots to support their action. But ALPA (Airline Pilots Association), the pilots’ organization, is very conservative. ALPA denied the FAA would let them fly if conditions were unsafe. The FAA claimed the airways were safe, because the pilots were flying.
The controllers went back after a compromise was mediated by a federal judge. The FAA promised negotiations and no reprisals when the controllers returned to work. After the men went back, however, the FAA transferred PATCO officers to clerical jobs. PATCO went back to the federal judge who had worked out the compromise and he ordered the FAA to return the men to their regular jobs. The three Baton Rouge men have since been fired.
The FAA has started negotiations with PATCO on the controller demands. The FAA promises action, but the controllers are waiting to see what will happen. Many of them are talking about working for the Canadian Air Traffic Control system.
There have been some changes. In the New York Center the men are now working a five day week. The workload is the same but the overtime has been reduced. The airlines have not gone back to their regular schedules and the men are enforcing "flow control" procedures on the airlines. That is, planes now wait on the ground to prevent delays in the air.
The airlines operate with average flights only half filled. Much airline congestion is caused by competitive pressures. Each airline wants its flights to leave at the rush hours.
PATCO is both a workers’ movement and a traditional trade union. PATCO officers would be happy to mediate between the men and the FAA. PATCO wants arbitration and dues checkoff. It attempted to conduct the sick-out within the legal system. There were no demonstrations at airports or FAA centers to spread the strike. The controllers were able to stop half of all airline flights during their strike, but they did not win their demands.
The controllers’ struggle has changed their political views. They are more sympathetic to the current student strike against the war. They have understood the necessity of direct action. Traditional trade union methods cannot deal with the basic problems in the aviation industry. The airlines are buying expensive jumbo jets which they do not need, and their losses increase. With profits declining the airlines will step up their pressure to compromise safety. Major airlines have already begun to lay off workers.
Only a revolutionary movement for workers control of industry will guarantee jobs and safety. Aviation workers who daily risk their lives — as well as the lives of thousands of passegers — in unsafe conditions must begin to build that movement. The controllers may go on strike again if the FAA does not submit to their demands. When the controllers go out again, they should not be alone. Pilots, ground workers, and other FAA employees should join them to fight resolutely for air safety, better working conditions, and more jobs.