On the Record: An Interview with Former NATCA President John Carr

By Robert Mark on July 23rd, 2007

When John Carr told me he had 3,000 election votes – more than anyone else – I thought he was kidding.

He was referring to the poll run by AvWeb asking for replacement recommendations for outgoing FAA administrator Marion Blakey (and yes, Blakey has confirmed she won’t spend one extra day at FAA when her term expires in September).

By the time the voting ended, Carr had garnered nearly 4,200 votes to win the title of administrator could-be, no chump change against the likes of challengers AOPA president Phil Boyer and former JetBlue CEO David Neeleman.

John Carr is no stranger to elections though having both won and lost as president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Carr was replaced for the top NATCA slot by Patrick Forrey last fall after six years on the job.

Just before the election, FAA imposed new work rules on controllers when FAA and NATCA failed to agree on a new contract. Many say the move was designed to be certain Carr would not win re-election. “The slogan was simple,” Carr recalls. “No contract, no Carr.” Chances that FAA might re-open talks with NATCA appear slim despite having recently renegotiated with other employee unions at FAA.

“There is an element of that work rule imposition to controllers that is often lost,” Carr says. “Sure we didn’t have the 66 percent needed to override the FAA and the White House, but we had 65 percent.” That means quite a few people did not want to see the agency jam new rules down the throats of their employees.

Could Carr become the next administrator? What would a Carr- led agency look like? He already has an important credential that’s been lacking in almost every other official to date … a sense of humor. Also an active blogger at The Main Bang (it’s an old radar term), Carr recently retired from the FAA, so he certainly understands the agency. At one time he was a controller and facility representative at the World’s Busiest, Chicago O’Hare.

OK, maybe the chances of a former union official taking the helm at FAA are slim. But the whys behind the chaos at FAA both before and after the strike offer a startling explanation for why controllers and FAA management don’t play well together right now and why we should care. 

After PATCO

Whether or not you agreed with the reasoning behind the 1981 controller strike, most experts believe the FAA missed out on a golden opportunity to remake the agency. It wasn’t long after the PATCO strike that a new union, NATCA,  become certified while asking for essentially the same things – better working conditions, better pay and better equipment – that drove the PATCO folks to the picket line.  

The reason for that turnabout was simple. “They fired the wrong people,” Carr says.  FAA was and still is a bureaucratic, autocratic, militaristic organization. They left behind a bunch of mean, surly, unhappy people after the strike, a sort of dark residue of that militaristic culture. I’d call FAA the military on steroids.”

Air traffic controllers are difficult personalities admittedly, says Carr. “Once they are plugged into an air traffic control position, they feel independent and in charge. And they are. The problem is that FAA home grows all its managers too. They sure never look to business schools for people. That means that those same sort of people  – folks who are good at giving airplanes orders to keep them safely separated – are eventually in charge of a bunch of independent people who don’t like being told what to do. The conflict is inevitable.” Carr added that the political folks at the top “see controllers as a different breed of cat and never have really understood us.”

But if all managers are drawn from controller ranks, how could they all forget their roots? “I wish I had a dollar for every controller who bid on a management position saying they were going to make a difference,” Carr says. “What happens? These folks eventually need to feed their families too. Once they’re in management, their new boss tells them flat out, ‘Listen up. You don’t have a union to run to for protection any more.’ At the end of the day, they do what they’re told.”

Despite considerable contempt surrounding most FAA administrators, Carr had high praise for Marion Blakey’s predecessor, Jane Garvey and not simply because she was in charge during an era of economic prosperity for controllers. Garvey is currently a professor at MIT’s Alfred P. Sloan School of Management. 

“When Jane Garvey was administrator during the Clinton presidency, I felt like we were all actually working toward a greater good. I went to work early and stayed late. She successfully juggled the system’s users, the pilots, controllers and the airlines. She was a collaborator and got people to work together.”

No such praise for Marion Blakey, an administrator viewed as someone in bed with the airlines. “Marion sees herself as George Bush in a skirt,” Carr says pointedly. Let’s face it, she bamboozled AOPA about FSS privatization. There’s a reason FAA is at the bottom of the morale barrel. Everyone likes to feel as if they have contributed, even if they haven’t, so Blakey’s style doesn’t translate well in the aviation industry. She still doesn’t realize that you actually don’t have to piss everyone off to show you’re in charge. FAA doesn’t seem to realize that they’ve poisoned another generation of controllers.But Blakey doesn’t care what Congress or anyone else thinks. worst of all, most of what they’ve (FAA) started now won’t really come to roost until long after Blakey is gone … maybe five more years.”

So why go to all the trouble of making employees crazy? Could it be simply about money? “The FAA is staffed with thousands of tenured, highly-paid employees,” Carr explained. “Many of them controllers. And what better way to lower costs at FAA than by getting these people to quit. Why not replace high-paid, irritating people with a bunch of lower-paid compliant ones?”

But if FAA were successful with this tactic, how long cold it last? No doubt, retirements have increased in the past year to about three people a day. That can’t continue for long. “There are simply too few controllers, working too many hours, controlling too many airplanes,” Carr says. “FAA had an opportunity after 9/11 to plan for the future, but they blew that as well.”

Since there is little motivation to reopen talks and since NATCA has essentially no power to make the agency listen to anything they have to say, I asked Carr something I was pummeled for asking here on Jetwhine six months ago. Why does NATCA exist?  

“Because it is much better than the alternative,” Carr reminded me. “We are the only game in town if a controller wants someone to stand up with them. FAA has seen to it that morale has never been lower. The union grew by a third between 2000 and 2006 in fact. Thank Marion Blakey and George Bush for that. In fact, I don’t think the union has ever been stronger. The hook is the same as it was 20 years ago. You believe. You hope for a better day, a better solution, another chance. Marion Blakey won’t be around forever.”

No matter how hard they are pushed, Carr says controllers would never strike, despite the vindictiveness they see in FAA management. But if Carr knows that, so does FAA. The agency has opened up a gray area now that it has forced new work rules on controllers. FAA says they won. It’s now their game. The controllers say they never signed off on anything and are working under duress. Looking around at the summer of our discontent, the future does not bode well for the aviation industry with FAA and the controllers at each other’s throats.

“Being an air traffic controller is like playing the most sophisticated video game ever, with the highest stakes,” Carr said as he recalled his career. “The really good controllers know who they are too. You get such a rush when you do a good job.” Pilots who just shot an ILS approach to minimums in bad weather know that same feeling. “Controllers love to go to the airport. Just like pilots, they love the smells too. But they will never say no. They never give up.” That kind of person, someone who never gives up, is exactly why FAA hired them in the first place.

Pilot deviations are also up the past few years. That’s something no one – pilot or controller want to be involved with. “Of course they’re up,” Carr responds quickly. “When you tell a controller they will be fired if they screw up, they are only human. They are going to try and do their best to show that they didn’t screw up.”

A controller in the Dallas area recently claimed other controllers were covering up these errors out of fear that it might affect their bonus pay. “I would turn in my own mother if I thought she was covering up anything like that,” Carr says. “And so would everyone else I know who wears a headset and flings tin. If that were really happening, there would sure be more than one person yelling about it.”

I still had one nagging question for John Carr. How does someone survive 25 years of FAA service with a smile on his face?

Without hesitation, Carr answered. “Jimmy Buffett.”

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On the Record is a regular series of in-depth interviews with aviation industry professionals. Know someone we should highlight in an upcoming issue?E-mail us at Jetwhine.com.

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7 Responses to “On the Record: An Interview with Former NATCA President John Carr”

  1. honestbob Says:

    I hate the FAA

  2. Aviation Interest Says:

    Its high time to break from the form of wait until a catastrophe occurs then overreact. Putting Carr in charge would head that off, otherwise strap in because we are heading for some very rough air.

  3. Garry Conn Says:

    Great article. Air traffic controllers are a rare breed. Years ago I watched a movie starting John Cusack titled, Pushing Tin. I loved that movie… and in the movie it almost seemed a little far fetched with the lives of ATC. However, after reading this article… maybe that might not be so! If you look up the word, “Stress” in the dictionary, would you see a picture of an air traffic controller?

  4. Labor Relations and Strikes - Jetwhine: Aviation Buzz and Bold Opinon Says:

    […] an On the Record session with John Carr a few months back, he told me that despite essentially having their hands tied behind them, NATCA […]

  5. John Carr’s Gone Fishin’ - Jetwhine: Aviation Buzz and Bold Opinion Says:

    […] Anyone who follows the happenings of the FAA and air traffic control knows John Carr. He spent more than a couple of years at the helm of NATCA, the controller’s union, and was Pat Forrey’s predecessor. I had the pleasure of interviewing John just about a year ago today in fact here at Jetwhine. […]

  6. John Carrs Gone Fishin | RENT-A-PLANE Says:

    […] Anyone who follows the happenings of the FAA and air traffic control knows John Carr. He spent more than a couple of years at the helm of NATCA, the controller’s union, and was Pat Forrey’s predecessor. I had the pleasure of interviewing John just about a year ago today in fact here at Jetwhine. […]

  7. Lanaya Says:

    Good words.

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