August 3, 1981 – PATCO Strike Remembered 38 Years Later

By Robert Mark on August 3rd, 2019

Ed note: It was 38 years ago today that the U.S. aviation system was turned upside down out. What have we learned in those decades since? Many controllers today are again working 10-hour days six days a week.

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JDA Solutions photo

I remember the morning of August 3, 1981, vividly as I turned on the TV to find news stories of air traffic controller members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization-PATCO-marching with picket signs at the base of the tower at Chicago O’Hare and other airports all over the nation. They’d simply run out of patience with their employer the FAA and took matters into their own hands.

Many of the people I saw on TV were friends. Most lost their jobs later that week when they refused President Reagan’s ultimatum, “Return to work or you will be fired.” Few ever returned to air traffic control again, in fact.

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There’s little point today in talking about how the strike could have or should have been handled. PATCO stuck its neck out and lost. It’s done, it’s over.

What is interesting about our nation’s air traffic control system today nearly three decades later is how little the agency that runs the system – the FAA – seems to have learned from their own mistakes of that era.

Certainly, the controllers violated their official government oath and for those who are precise followers of rules at all costs, this was sacrosanct. Agency personnel were primarily ex-military people, so a militaristic autocratic style should not have actually been much of a surprise. Problem was – and is now – that a military rule in a civilian organization seldom works well.

By 1981, FAA employee morale was at the bottom of the outhouse and pushed controllers into an unwelcome corner where they felt they had few options. Within just a few years of the 1981 strike, controllers again unionized under the National Air Traffic Controllers Association-NATCA- banner.

Today, 27 years later, morale at FAA is again in the toilet. Controllers routinely work six-day weeks and ten-hour days. Thousands of experienced controllers have already retired as new inexperienced trainees join the firm. As experienced controllers walk out the door, they take their decades of problem-solving skills with them leaving little behind to share with the replacements.defiance-jetwhine

The agency would like to make the public believe these ex-PATCO era controllers are forced to retire at age 56 and indeed there is a rule to that effect on the books.

What the agency fails to tell anyone, however, is that there are exceptions that could be made to all of these retirements if FAA wanted to keep these experienced folks around a little longer to train replacements.

Few controllers want to stay longer, however. The question the public should be asking is why not and how will this affect the safety of the public over the next few years.

At AirVenture 2008, acting administrator Bobby Sturgell told me the agency has other unions to deal with and has spent plenty of time dealing with NATCA already. It’s easy to make statements like that when you’re sitting at 800 Independence Ave, especially since FAA just released a draft of its new organizational flight plan for the next 50 years, a plan that highlights the need for quality leaders.

What Sturgell said at AirVenture about the state of safety in our national airspace system is true. It is the safest period we’ve ever seen. But as we saw in 1981, things can change, despite all the best rules and plans. People follow leaders, not plans. And now, 27 years after the PATCO strike, FAA still has no right to use “excellence” and “leadership” in the same sentence.

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