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Saturday, January 26, 2008

While Rome Burns

There are so many thoughts swirling through this lump of grey matter that I find it difficult to sleep beyond five or six hours every night. I had two issues in mind today, and perhaps I can weave them both in here since they are both significant to the future of the national airspace system and the safety of the flying public.

The air traffic controllers who are a majority of the audience here are all too familiar with our situation. To the rest of you, I will try and summarize. In 2000, the American people elected perhaps the biggest pro-corporation anti-worker President we have ever seen. For the four years that followed, he carried out his anti-American agenda from the back pocket of corporate America. With heavy hearts and fear in their minds, the American people reelected this man. By 2005, the air traffic controllers of this country were at the bargaining table with these thieves. By mid-2006, the party was over. Although my union worked tirelessly, the inevitable happened. This President used his powers of persuasion (some would call it coercion) to convince the United States Congress to tacitly approve of the Federal Aviation Administration's rape of an entire workforce. In less than a year, the nation's air traffic controllers were stripped of their right to collectively bargain. We were literally thrown back into the 1800s. People died for the right to collectively bargain, and these legislators allowed it to happen without fanfare.

The calendar has turned to 2008. Soon it will be two years since negotiations broke down, two years since the lawmakers approved of these egregious acts. Facing morale that was dropping faster than the temperatures in Green Bay, their pay frozen like the tundra of Lambeau Field, this workforce has had enough. Over 1600 air traffic controllers walked away during the last fiscal year – the period from October 2006 through September 2007. Think about it. More than 10% of the workforce decided it was no longer worth it. Since the start of this fiscal year, another 600+ controllers have walked away. The body count stands at 2200 out of a workforce of 15000 (nearly 15% of all air traffic controllers), their voices forever silenced. With them, they take thousands of years of experience. When NATCA warned the former FAA Administrator that this would happen, she shrugged it off thinking the "greedy, overpaid, underworked controllers would stay for the money" and "we have people lining up to do the job for a fraction of what we are paying them."

Having lived through this, nothing surprises me anymore. It's a feeling of total numbness. This past week, this agency handed out their performance bonuses. You see, the salary of nearly every air traffic controller hired before 9/06 is above the FAA's new pay scale. What this means is unless these rules are reversed or my pay catches up with their new scale, I do not get yearly pay raises. Every other Government worker gets pay raises. The supervisors and managers who work in my building get pay raises. Instead, if I'm a good little soldier, I get a lump sum that is equivalent to the pay raise I would have gotten. If I do more than just talk to airplanes, they'll toss in another $600. Hell, if I really, really, really impress them, I get $1800! We worked very hard in the 1990s to eliminate the "pay for performance" system because you simply cannot quantify the work we do in that fashion. You either keep airplanes safely moving through the system or you don't. Furthermore, a pay for performance system is designed to do little more than pit employee versus employee in a career field that doesn't work without cohesiveness.

To say that someone is a better employee because they give a tour, provide training, draw maps or teach a class is just asinine. What it does is takes a qualified air traffic controller away from their primary duties, leaving you and your family without that extra set of eyes to keep you safe. The controllers are being rewarded for doing work that should be performed by someone whose primary duty is not working air traffic. It's like asking a surgeon to file patient history instead of performing surgery. It's only a matter of time before someone dies in the waiting room.

This is why we are bracing for the next wave of retirements. Many people who became eligible last year decided to walk away on January 3rd, when they could maximize several benefits. Many others waited for that windfall, to take a few thousand dollars from the Agency before they walked away. This isn't a wag, this is based upon what happened last February and what I have direct knowledge of this year. Meanwhile, the remaining 11000 or so qualified air traffic controllers will continue to go in and pick up the pieces every day, because that is what we do. We have little choice. The FAA says they are hiring air traffic controllers. This is patently false. They are hiring people for us to develop into air traffic controllers, a process that can take anywhere from two to five years. "I'm sorry Mrs. Jones, but we don't have a fully qualified surgeon here. This developmental surgeon will be removing that tumor." That is where the air traffic system sits today. There is no other choice.

Since the FAA has been called "FEMA with wings", it is of little surprise that these people couldn't manage the drive thru at the Chick-Fil-A. (No offense to the Chick-fil-a managers around the country. I'm sure you do fine work.) What is disappointing is the refusal of the United States Congress to fix this mess the FAA has gotten us into. To be fair, the House of Representatives has approved their fix. Thanks to Congressmen Oberstar, Costello and others too numerous to mention, the House of Representatives has approved HR2881, which overturns the actions of this administration and gives air traffic controllers a fair chance at the bargaining table. Unfortunately, the Senate does not see the urgency of the matter. 2200 controllers are gone and the FAA is predicting that we will lose another 800. Of course, they will move the goal posts when we go careening past that number. It is not a stretch to think that one in four qualified controllers will have left in a two year period. Considering it takes a minimum of two years to make a replacement and they have just begun to hire the individuals for us to develop into air traffic controllers, we are facing a crisis. Remember what I wrote about two days ago - 22 errors and 5 accidents in one weekend? My manager blames the winter doldrums. It is obvious that the air traffic controllers are stretched to their limits. The system is teetering and anyone who tells you it isn't is lying to you.

Tomorrow, I will leave for Washington, DC to meet with our legislators. The message to every United States Senator is clear: Aviation safety is in our hands. Its future is in yours.

1 comment:

Todd said...

Nice post Yaz. You described what is happening and I am one of the controllers you talked about. I vectored my last aircraft one week ago. I burned my sick leave down to a "0" balance this week, received my little lump sum on my most recent paycheck and am officially retired from the FAA effective Sunday.

You also hit the nail on the head in regards to bonuses paid out by the FAA. Generally speaking the guys getting the bonuses are not the controllers working in the trenches day in and day out, but rather the controllers who really don't like working traffic so are always volunteering for jobs which take them away from the traffic.

-Todd Wilhelm, formerly of P50