Air Controllers Chafe at Plan to Reduce Staffing Levels
By MATTHEW L. WALD
Published: September 20, 2006
DALLAS, Sept. 13 — A drive by the Federal Aviation Administration to cut the
number of air traffic controllers nationally by 10 percent below negotiated
levels, and even more sharply at places like the busy radar center here, is
producing tension, anger and occasional shows of defiance among controllers.
At the radar office that controls planes around Dallas/Fort Worth
International Airport and at a cluster of other airports where staffing
levels are falling fast, unhappiness is usually not visible in the darkened
radar centers where they work, except when it is glaringly obvious.
Like the recent day when a controller here went to work in lime green pants
and a clashing brown jacket, along with hair dyed blue, to protest a new
dress code. Elsewhere, male controllers have rebelled by going to work in
Most controllers here say they are far more concerned with workplace changes
that do not involve wardrobe, including salary caps, lower pay for new hires
and stricter control of vacation schedules and sick leave.
The F.A.A. imposed the changes on Sept. 3, three months after it declared an
impasse in contract talks. Most of the changes have had little effect on the
public. But one in particular may have safety implications, controllers and
some outside experts said. That is the ending of contractual protection
against being kept working on a radar screen controlling traffic for more
than two hours without a break.
The agency has been defensive about staffing rules since a plane crash on
Sept. 1 in Lexington, Ky., in a case where the workload of the lone
controller on duty violated policy.
Having just one controller on duty “degrades the safety net,” said Pat
Forrey, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, “by
not having another set of eyes and ears.” Mr. Forrey and others make a
similar argument about keeping controllers at their work stations in
positions that require intense concentration for extended periods.
The president of the union local here, Michael Conely, said that with the
number of controllers now scheduled, “you can’t staff all the positions
“You are on position longer, watching more airplanes, and it becomes a
tired-eye syndrome,” Mr. Conely said.
The aviation agency says that traffic is down in the Dallas region and that
the goal is to “staff to traffic” and not to an arbitrary standard.
Controllers, who earn more than $100,000 a year, are too expensive to leave
idle, the agency says, and nationally, it has a goal of gradually increasing
each controller’s workload 10 percent. The manager here, Dan Gutwein, said
controllers spent five and a half hours a day at their radarscopes, up from
four hours historically.
In an interview, the administrator of the agency, Marion C. Blakey, said the
goal of the changes was to make the agency run more like a business.
“You can’t serve an industry that’s largely teetering on bankruptcy and ask
for a bigger slice of the pie,” Ms. Blakey said last month in a speech.
Explaining why the dress code matters, Ms. Blakey said there are “folks who
push outside the norms of what is professional dress and what’s professional
The dress code bans jeans, as well as T-shirts and shirts with big lettering
and requires that controllers not appear “disheveled,” rules that are not
onerous, she said.
Ms. Blakey is trying to reshape the agency as two-thirds of the controllers
face retirement in the next 10 years. That bulge is a result of extensive
hiring in the early 1980’s to replace thousands of striking controllers whom
President Ronald Reagan fired.
The controllers, many with two decades in positions in which they are
entrusted with thousands of lives, say the changes make them feel
trivialized. A cartoon that controllers circulated by e-mail shows a radar
screen with two converging airplanes and a picture of a man’s sneaker,
banned under the new dress code. The caption asks which should be the
The agency says the controllers’ attire must not “erode public confidence,”
although most work in windowless rooms, out of public view. The lighting in
the radar room here is so dim that it is not easy, at a glance, to tell
whether controllers are wearing the now-banned sneakers or sandals.
Mr. Conely said in an interview that the dress code was about more than
“It’s absolutely a power thing,” he said. “They want to show they’re in
charge and this is how we’re going to do it and if you don’t like it quit.”
Some controllers are convinced that quitting is what the agency hopes they
will do. Under the new rules, their replacements will earn substantially
less. By the union count, 86 controllers worked here as of Jan. 1. Ten have
retired, the union says, with some leaving early because of the new rules.
In the late 1990’s, the controllers and the agency negotiated a national
staffing pact that called for 117 controllers here. The agency disagrees on
the current count and says many changes that grate on controllers are needed
for scheduling flexibility.
The agency says that controllers are no longer guaranteed two consecutive
weeks of vacation and that vacations can be canceled at the last minute.
Controllers scheduled to work on holidays can be called off a few hours
before and lose the holiday pay.
Management also gave itself the flexibility to keep controllers on their
scopes for more than two hours. Two hours is still the goal, but controllers
can no longer file grievances if they are there longer.
A former controller, Craig Carlson, now a co-director of the Air Traffic
Control Program at the University of North Dakota, which provides initial
training in air traffic control, said, “When it’s really busy, it gets
really taxing on you if you are sitting there for a full two hours.”
Referring to tougher schedules for controllers, John Cox, an aviation safety
expert and a former safety official at the Air Line Pilots Association,
said, “This is exactly what the airlines have done with pilots.”
“The airline pilots today are flying more hours, flying more days, and they
are being more efficiently scheduled, and fatigue is an issue for them,” he
A longtime controller here said what the agency had done with the changes
“feels awfully retaliatory.” The controller, who insisted on anonymity
because of fears that managers would take offense, and others did say that
some people had, in fact, abused sick leave, but that the remedy should not
be rules that made everyone’s lives miserable.
Nonetheless, the controller said, he loved his work and would not quit
despite significant pay cuts and the difficulty in planning vacations.