The ATC Crisis That Wasn’t

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If you’re traveling by air today—your own airplane or via airlines—you’re having a much better experience than would have been likely if the government hadn’t been reopened on Friday. With the paychecks again flowing, a massive flu outbreak among air traffic controllers has been miraculously avoided. In the annals of disease prevention, it may stand as the most effective vaccine ever. Why even TSA workers are suddenly feeling better.

Writing in The Washington Post over the weekend, Joseph McCartin, the author of Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike That Changed America, postulates that spiraling rumors that controllers were about to stage a sick out finally convinced the political class to end the stupid shutdown and get these people paid. While I claim no insider knowledge about the ATC workforce, I can read FlightAware’s MiseryMap and no one should have missed the shot across the bow on Friday when Washington Center issued ground stops for Newark and LaGuardia because of staff shortages.

With nasty weather forecast in the Northeast for Sunday and more set to hammer Chicago on Monday, the situation was about to deteriorate to the point of making the lead on the evening news. Given the tight staffing levels at many facilities and a dose of weather chaos, it doesn’t take much to hobble an air transportation system with minimal reserve capacity.

NATCA, the controllers' union, was as plain as it could be about this. Controllers working without furloughed support staff—and unpaid, by the way—were declaring themselves medically unfit to be on position. Legally, under the Federal Service Labor Management Relations Act of 1987, controllers are prohibited from striking. But like pilots, they are required to self-certify as medically fit, including being adequately rested. “Rested" is a between-the-ears concept not to be determined by anyone other than the restee. Even the FAA understood that sending legions of controllers out for doctors' notes would be a losing strategy.

Public sentiment for this particular work action is difficult to gauge because there has been no specific polling on it. An NPR/Ipsos poll found that 74 percent of Americans say they were embarrassed by the shutdown. The same poll found that Americans also believe federal workers were unfairly impacted by the shutdown. Our own AVweb poll found that 42 percent say controllers and TSA workers would be justified in staging a work action, 36 percent said they would not be.

For several reasons, I’m in the 42 percent. For one thing, a sick out is not a strike. It exists in the impossible-to-define murky world of a work action. Second, in my view, it’s utterly unacceptable for the general public to expect federal workers to work without pay and to uniquely shoulder the burden of these political shenanigans while feeling none of the pain themselves. If you find yourself stuck in an airline terminal for 12 hours, you may be compelled to give your congress people a jingle. That’s as it should be. Personally, if I had travel planned, I’d have canceled it, but still made the call.

Air traffic controllers are well paid—average pay about $84,000—and the benefits are often better than in the private sector. Still, they’re not all at that pay level and I find the argument that they should put aside sufficient resources because the government might shut down to be utterly unpersuasive. It’s especially unpersuasive when you consider Coast Guard members, who aren’t paid nearly as well, were also expected to deploy while their families coped sans pay. If we as an electorate deem controller jobs to be sufficiently critical to prohibit strikes, then we should accordingly assure that their pay isn’t stopped for political posturing.

When a worker is hired—public or private sector—there’s a contractual understanding that he or she will be paid for the work. That doesn’t mean there won’t be pay cuts or layoffs. But it does—or should—mean that no one is expected to work without pay merely to advance a political agenda. When that does happen, I think they’re justified in focusing attention on their plight in the hopes that the electorate will send more competent and mature people to Washington. This is, of course hopelessly nave, but it beats accepting shutdowns as a legitimate means of doing business.

We face the prospect of another shutdown three weeks from now. One hopes it will be averted. But if it isn’t and controllers once again force the issue, bully for them.