This article is from the November 1977 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

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This article is from the October 1981 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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The Economics of the Air Controllers’ Strike

By The D&S Collective

You can rest assured that if I am elected President, I will take whatever steps are necessary to provide our air traffic controllers with the most modern equipment available and to adjust staff levels and work days so that they are commensurate with achieving a maximum degree of public safety... I pledge to you that my administration will work very closely with you to bring about a spirit of cooperation between the president and the air traffic controllers.
—Ronald Reagan, in a letter to PATCO President Robert Poli, October 20, 1980

Less than a year after writing the above words, Ronald Reagan declared war on PATCO, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization.

The strike and lockout that began August 3 is a result, on the union side, of long-standing frustration with extremely stressful work, combined with a number of strategic mistakes and miscalculations. On the management side, it is a result of union-busting plans endorsed by both the Carter and Reagan Administrations. The significance of the strike goes well beyond the immediate issues of air traffic control; it is an ominous signal that a new era of overtly anti-union politics is beginning in Washington.

The job of air traffic control is a very tense one. It involves long hours of staring at a radar screen and issuing orders to make sure that none of the blips comes to close to each other. It has been compared to playing one of the new electronic “Space Invaders” games—with the difference that if you let two dots on the screen collide, you lose a lot more than your quarter. The tension becomes greatest in bad weather, when pilots are particularly dependent on instructions from control towers.

Moreover, the working conditions have been getting worse. Air traffic has increased 20% since 1978, while the number of controllers and the level of control tower equipment has remained the same. When traffic piles up at an airport, a control tower supervisor will often demand that the controllers “get more tin [planes] on the ground” and then turn his back. The unspoken order is that the controllers are supposed to violate federal safety rules by allowing planes to land too close together. If this results in an accident, it is the controllers, not the supervisors, who are held responsible.

Many civilian controllers have had prior experience in military air traffic control. Four-fifths are Vietnam veterans, and most have only a high-school education. Those without military air control backgrouns start with two years of school; after that, all civilian controllers serve a four-year apprenticeship at $12,000 a year. He (or she; there are a few women controllers) then begins work at $20,000 a year. The widely quoted $33,000 salary figure is reached only ten years after apprenticeship, or about fifteen years after beginning training.

Often controllers do not last ten or fifteen years. The job takes its toll on the workers’ health and personal lives: controllers have above-average rates of ulcers, alcoholism, divorce, and other problems traceable to stress. The hours, as well as the stress, are destructive of family life; at some airports controllers work two days, two evenings, and one “graveyard shift” every week. Only 11% of controllers last to retirement age, despite an easy retirement policy—controllers can retire after 25 years of service at any age, or after 20 years if over 40. In recent years, half the people leaving the job have done so for medical reasons.

PATCO endorsed Reagan in the 1980 election, in fact, because of hostility to Carter’s chief of the Federal Aviation Administration, Langhorn Bond, the man PATCO viewed as responsible for the speed-up of recent years. During the campaign PATCO asked both Carter and Reagan to promise to fire Bond and improve control tower equipment; Reagan was quick to agree, and held a flattering private meeting with PATCO President Robert Poli.

Management Votes to Strike

Labor-management conflict in air traffic control was well underway before the Reagan Administration arrived. In 1973 the FAA realized it was facing a “morale problem” among controllers and paid a Boston University consulting team $3 million to study it. The consultants’ report, delivered in 1978, blamed outdated, harsh management practices for the poor morale. In response the FAA declined to change its management practices, but instead started preparing to force a showdown. FAA plans for combating a controllers’ strike were even published last November.

The Reagan team was happy to adopt the Carter Administration strike plan, with two changes. First, they chose to respond with immediate firings rather than warnings that firings were imminent; second, they left the scheduling of commercial flight reductions during the strike up to the airlines rather than the FAA. The latter change helped make the strike beneficial to the troubled airline industry.

For the airlines, 1980 and early 1981 were terrible times. The industry lost a total of $180 million in the first quarter of 1981 alone. The problems were in part due to the 1979-80 rise in fuel prices, and in part due to the 1978 deregulation of the airlines. Freed of FAA controls over routes and rates, and inexperienced at “free market” competition, the airlines overextended themselves: that is, they began flying many unprofitable routes simply to get there before the others did.

Just as profit-oriented rationalization and route cutbacks began to take effect, the established airlines were shaken by competition from the new “no-frills” airlines. Midway began flying out of Chicago in late 1979, followed by New York Air in late 1980 and People Express in early 1981, both beginning in the Northeast. Within its first six months, New York Air had captured 25% of the Boston-New York-Washington air traffic.

No-frills airlines are cheaper for several reasons. They have non-union employees; they buy used planes instead of new ones; and they fly only between major airports at rush hours, when they can be sure to find plenty of passengers. Before the PATCO strike at least five more such lines had announced plans to open up.

The flight reductions imposed by the FAA to cope with the PATCO strike may well deliver a death blow to the no-frills airlines. With all lines limited to a percentage of their pre-strike flights, no new lines can start up; and with 25% cutbacks overall, but 50% at major airports at rush hours, the niche occupied by the existing no-frills lines is hit much harder than the rest of the industry.

The FAA’s prediction that it will take two years to rebuild the air traffic control system thus can be translated as a two-year breather from competition for the established airlines. They get a chance to drop their least profitable routes, to scrap their oldest planes, to lay off employees—all the while blaming it on PATCO—and to prepare themselves for a second try at unregulated competition around 1983.

Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go Back in the Sky

The following conversation occurred at 10:55 AM, Tuesday, September 8, as Republic Flight 215 was coming in for a landing at Fort Lauderdale. A tape of the conversation was leaked from the Miami control tower to a local television station, then played on NBC’s “Today” show. The FAA protested the “unauthorized broadcast” but did not deny that the conversation occurred.

REPUBLIC 215 PILOT: Yes, sir, we did just barely miss a Baron [a Beechcraft Baron, a private plane].


PILOT: We just missed a Baron, by about 15 feet.

CENTER: Republic 215 turn on heading 270 VFR right down on ...

PILOT: Yes sir, 270. Did you ever see him down there?

CENTER: No, sir, I didn’t. The only thing I see appears to be on the pattern at Executive [a nearby private airport].

PILOT: I could see the rivits on his cowling. He must have been at about 4500 feet. He looked like he was fixing to go upside down when I saw him.

CENTER: I don’t see a thing. I see one aircraft. It looks like it’s in the pattern right now. Another one about a mile east of Executive Airport is all I’ve got.

PILOT: OK, we’re just right on him.

Source: Boston Globe, September 10, 1981

But Is It Safe?

While the FAA-ordered traffic cutbacks are just fine with the established airlines, other powerful interest groups are much less happy. The major reduction in the amount of “tin” in the sky ordered by the FAA was no the 25% cutback in airline flights, but the grounding of most military and private planes. The Pentagon and those corporations unable to whisk their executives across the country in company jets can be expected to push the FAA to ease up on flight reductions, much sooner than two years from now.

For the present, however, the flight reductions appear to have made the airways relatively safer at upper altitudes. The danger is that, with small non-commercial planes now excluded from the upper altitudes, there may be a sharp increase in flights at the very lowest altitudes; such flights are not governed by air traffic controllers. These planes might then collide with commercial airlines taking off or landing. Although the FAA tries to hush them up, reports of dramatic near-hits between commercial and private planes have leaked out of some control towers since the strike (see box).

In the past, air traffic controllers used to view themselves as “professionals,” not as trade unionists. They crossed picket lines during the strikes of airport ground crews in Boston and other cities. But as their own working conditions worsened, PATCO members became increasingly militant. Unfortunately it was a naive, inexperienced militance: naive enough to endorse Reagan; inexperienced enough to call a major strike with almost no advance public relations work or promises of outside support. Many PATCO members apparently believed that the air traffic control system would collapse without them in a matter of days.

A serious public relations blunder occurred when Poli placed heavy emphasis on PATCO’s demand for a $10,000 pay increase, the demand which sounded most unreasonable to the public. Most controllers seemed willing to accept Reagan’s wage offer, but were determined to strike over hours and working conditions. And the biggest error of all, of course, was the decision to go on strike rather than employing sick-outs or “work to rule” slowdowns—which could have demonstrated PATCO's ability to paralyze air traffic much more effectively than the strike.

Recognizing that PATCO is a small politically-isolated union, the Reagan Administration decided to make an example of it, ushering in a new era of union-busting. In the 1920s, in the days of Reagan’s idol Calvin Coolidge, employers fired people for union activities, hired strike-breakers, and made workers sign “yellow-dog” contracts promising not to join a union. Today the Reagan Administration has signaled its willingness to see such tactics return. New air traffic controllers hired since the strike have been forced to sign a pledge that they will not engage in any job actions such as sick-outs or slowdowns.

The message has not been lost on other public employees and employers. Postal workers, voting on a contract soon after the PATCO strike began, accepted it overwhelmingly; many had planned to vote against the contract but said Reagan’s firing of the controllers changed their minds. Across the country, state and local officials rushed to announce that striking public employees would be fired and replaced.

Barring a disastrous accident in the air (which was the way the French air controllers’ strike ended in 1973) or a decision by other unions to help shut down the airports, PATCO’s prospects look bleak. But the government has not necessarily won. With inexperienced, overworked new controllers, and with military and corporate pressure to resume heavier flight schedules, some observers believe the FAA will not be able to continue for long without rehiring substantial numbers of PATCO members. There may yet be a more generous amnesty offer in an attempt to get some experienced controllers back on the job, naturally without their union. But the striking PATCO members say they will not go back unless the government takes all of them and begins to negotiate with their union.

Sources: Based on a talk by Rick Hurd (an economist who works with PATCO), Whittemote School of Business and Economics, University of New Hampshire, Durham.
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