August 3, 1981 – PATCO Strike Remembered

By Robert Mark on August 3rd, 2008

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.


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 their 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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7 Responses to “August 3, 1981 – PATCO Strike Remembered”

  1. John J. Tormey III, Esq. Says:

    It’s NOT “the safest period we’ve ever seen” unless perhaps if measured by short-term tombstones and body count alone. “Safety” is not a construct exclusively measured by the FAA-familiar metric of death. An intellectually-ingenuous measurement of “safety”, not borne of Tombstone-Mentality and culture, instead takes into account the proactive and preventative, as well as the post-facto and post-mortem. An intellectually-ingenuous measurement of “safety”, not borne of tombstone mentality and culture, instead takes into account what is ABOUT to happen in addition to what just happened. If Bobby Sturgell’s wife Lynn and young son Ben were on one of the recent JFK near-miss planes or EWR low-fuel landings or wrong-way departures, would Sturgell really continue to misrepresent to the American people that it’s “the safest period in aviation history”? Threatened whistle-blower inspectors? Cracked Southwest planes? American’s wire-bundles? Low-fuel landings, wrong-way departures, fly-arounds and runway incursions? That’s “safe”? By Sturgell’s definition and death-metric, was TWA Flight 800 “safe” during the 10 seconds immediately prior to it exploding and crashing? That’s like saying Saddam was well-liked in the 10 seconds before the hangman hit the trap-door, because after all in those ten seconds he was still alive, wasn’t he?

  2. FAAGuy Says:

    I hired in after the strike and morale was great. If I had a nickel for every time since 1988 that somebody said “Morale has never been worse.”

    I can thank Bobby for my great morale.

    (Poli, that is)

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  6. Edward White Says:

    Former Atlanta Center Controller

    The biggest problems that controllers had began with Jimmy Carter who disliked controllers in general and Atlanta Center controllers in particular. His good friend and FBO at the Americus, Ga airport hated controllers and his feelings were absorbed by Jimmy.

    I had watched Carter for many years and had warned friends about him before he became Governor and so had the location and the insight to observe his actions.

    Controller upgrades had already been approved and Jimmy worked hard to come up with a formula which would exclude Atlanta Center. He thought he had one and the upgrades were made. We immediately counted our traffic properly and easily qualified. The facility was upgraded and jimmy was furious.

    All center awards disappeared and performance evaluations downgraded for many. Jimmy did all he could to cheapen the profession. He then set up the machinery to assure that controllers had as little honest recourse as possible when contract time came around.

    Carter was out and the Reagan administration was in when negotiations were due. It was clear to many early on that Ronald Reagan was not with it, later we learned that it was the early stages of Alzheimers.

    The continued denigration of controllers really fell to Edwin Meese. With the machinery in place, a little tweaking was all that was needed and with a few key people in place, controllers had no chance.

    During my off-duty time, the President fired those of us who had not returned to work and it was announced that the strike was over as those not back at work were no longer controllers. This was reinforced by the Transportation Secretary, FAA Chief, an Attorney General and others in high places. I naively thought that since I had been improperly and illegally fired that I could legally withhold my services and win in court. Court rulings were obviously political and a judge simply ruled that the President had not fired us. The Supreme Court refused to hear controller appeals.

    What tipped me over the edge were the many outright lies given to the media by the Feds. The difficulty of the job, working conditions were downplayed while salary was greatly inflated.

    Among their callous remarks was one calling us terrorists. Among the Atlanta Center controllers were many veterans, including at least three Silver Star recipients from SEA. One of these, very proud of his service to our country, would jokingly refer to us as fellow terrorist.

    There is so much more and what has been written could be significantly expanded.

  7. Edward White Says:

    My error – correct E-mail addy is:

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