Wednesday, August 3, 2011

PATCO: 30-year anniversary

In my writings here, I try to avoid politically-charged topics. The reasons are simple: They tend to polarize opinions and create animosity, and there is already way too much of that on the web (and in other media). That's not what I'm about. Also, publishing that sort of diatribe would likely not be well received by the powers that be, and I don't need any more of that sort of attention than I already get.

Thus, there's been no mention of the recent congressional foolishness with the FAA's budget, despite the fact that it has resulted in a partial shutdown of the agency - idling some 4,000 FAA employees and putting the brakes on over 200 construction projects across the nation. The shutdown costs the government about $30 million per day in uncollected ticket-tax revenue. The biggest sticking point? Cuts to the Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes airline service to rural communities who otherwise would have none. The amount of funding that some are trying to cut: $16.5 million. That's about half of the amount of ticket-tax revenue that won't be collected today alone. And this has been going on for the better part of two weeks now - so far.

But that's not what I'm here to talk about. Instead, I want to mark an anniversary. It was 30 years ago today that the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) went on strike. I'm not taking a position on the action one way or the other, simply observing the date. I am a member of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), which is the union now representing the majority of the nation's air traffic controllers. To mark the anniversary, NATCA sent out this statement to its members:

The date was August 3, 1981. Thousands of men and women across the country walked the line under the hot summer sun, holding cardboard signs that read “On Strike,” chanting and demanding an equitable contract. Thirty years ago today, our PATCO Brothers and Sisters took a heroic stand against substandard working conditions, inadequate staffing and unfair work and pay rules. Over 13,000 professional air traffic controllers, 79 percent of the workforce, walked the picket line in hopes of improving their professions and to ensure that the National Airspace System remained the safest and most efficient in the world.

It’s difficult to imagine the situation in which these men and women found themselves. The loss of income that supported PATCO families did not overshadow the loss of a job they loved. Our PATCO Brothers and Sisters took a stand with a firm vision of the bigger picture, and they paid dearly for their dedication to our profession.

Shortly after their firings, the Department of Transportation released a staffing report, noting that air traffic controllers staffing dropped from 16,375 to about 4,200. As the FAA began hiring thousands of new controllers, the past loomed like a shadow. Six years later, on June 19, 1987, NATCA was officially certified as the exclusive bargaining unit representative for FAA air traffic controllers - born from the ashes of our past, ready to forge a new labor future for the air traffic workforce.

PATCO controllers who lost their jobs made a sacrifice that still resonates through our profession. On this solemn anniversary we should all pause and look back with gratitude to our PATCO Brothers and Sisters for making that incredible sacrifice. Because of their beliefs and conviction, the National Airspace System remains the safest, most efficient system in the world.

NATCA owes a great deal to the members of PATCO. The sacrifices of our PATCO Brothers and Sisters, and the lessons learned from those sacrifices, must never be forgotten. We must continue to reach out and educate our newest members. We must not take our jobs or our union rights for granted. We must remember that history can only teach us if we remember it accurately and continue to keep PATCO’s indelible story alive in our collective memory. Join us in honoring them today and thanking them for all that they did.

I was hired in 1992, and was in the very last training class of the thousands of replacement controllers hired; it took ten years to rebuild the nation's controller workforce. I've gotten to work with some of the former PATCO controllers, and they've been great guys. All had their lives irrevocably changed by the strike and its aftermath. As a result of their action, I have a job with better pay, working conditions, facilities, and equipment. That means a safer air traffic system for everyone. Thanks guys.


  1. Being a fired controller sometimes gives me a sense of pride. Sooner or later in life you have to make a stand for something you believe in right or wrong. I stood my ground, I have no regrets. I remember some friends of mine who were School Teachers. They were extremely critical of my actions during the ATC strike, but I got to watch them walk a picket line a few years later for their own demands. They of course weren't fired. They withheld their services as I did, the same physical action, but they were not banished from a vocation for life as I was. It was cruel twist of fate, but the fact a new ATC Union formed within a few years of our departure, vindicates everything we stood for. I may have lost a job, but the public was denied my skills. Your loss.

    I find it quite humorous that replacing striking controllers 30 years later is even an issue. Many of our replacements from the past 30 years want to retire pretty much at the same time in the next few years. It just goes to show you how messed up the FAA was then, and is now. Reagan’s firing of 11,000 workers “en masse” seemed like such a good idea at the time.

    30 Years later the ripple of the strike lives on...

    Thanks for the kind words, it's good to know our sacrifice was not in vain.

  2. I hear you, 5 x 5! You do not need to say any more. A close relative was a PATCO member (still is, in fact) and was FIRED for asking for decent working conditions. Family, friends and the now aged-out members will never forget. I'll stop before I get both of us into trouble, but by observing that so little has changed. Quite honestly, I do not understand why today's professional controllers put up with it. Best regards and yes Captain Vector, I enjoy following your blog! Please continue. I'm perfectly happy to sign my note, but for technical reasons (gawd-awful blog software setup) doing so results in an endless loop situation. Please get it fixed.) For now I must remain anonmyous... -C.