amid the darkness of Washington Center in Leesburg, Virginia,
an air traffic controller spoke incessantly into the tiny microphone
of his headset. His accent revealed the soft twang of the West
Virginian hills, but his strong, confident voice cut through the
air like the boom of a howitzer.
Despite his cocky demeanor, his
restless eyes darted repeatedly across the radarscope before him,
its round screen lit up like a pinball machine in the dazzling
throes of a bonus round. Twenty-two green blips flashed and danced
on the glass while two stacks of airplanes pirouetted in unison
over Woodstown in southwestern New Jersey and Yardley, Pennsylvania,
near Philadelphia. The aerial ballet formed the swirling headwaters
of a river that streamed northeast across his scopeand through
his mindbefore flowing on to New York’s LaGuardia Airport.
Jerry Tierney’s hands were full on this day in 1984. Besides the
rush of planes, he was grappling with the aftershocks of a cataclysmic
strike that wiped out three-quarters of the air traffic control
work force in August 1981. Chronic low staffing frequently forced
controllers to juggle more than one portion of airspace at a time.
Tierney was riding herd over the Woodstown and Dupont sectors.
Like many of his brethren, he was also toiling through yet another
grueling six-day workweek.
Sporting a bushy head of dark brown hair, neatly cropped above
the ears, and wearing his usual button-down shirt and slacks,
the medium-built Tierney had earned a well-deserved reputation
as one of Washington Center’s finest controllers. Colleagues respected
his honest, sincere attitude and strong work ethic, and they cheered
his zero tolerance for nonsensical edicts from management.
In his largely unseen world, where professionals balance the science
of physics with the art of choreography, a thin line separates
chaos from control. Good controllers know their limits. They can
sense when one more plane will propel them into the abyss and
scatter their concentration like a collapsing house of cards.
Tierney had been pushing tin for sixteen years and could tell
he was nearing the edge of the precipice. There was nowhere else
to stack planes in the north while they waited for their turn
to land. He called another controller at the center to briefly
shut off the relentless streams from Maryland and Virginia in
Seated behind him, a supervisor snapped to attention and leaned
forward. “We’ve got to get them in,” he said.
“I’m not taking them,” Tierney responded, his eyes raking over
the scope as he plotted his next several moves.
The supervisor’s voice grew edgy. “You have to accept those aircraft.”
Under pressure from Congress and the airlines, the Federal Aviation
Administration was publicly proclaiming that the air traffic system
had fully recovered from the strike. After enduring a period of
cutbacks, the airlines published thicker timetables month by month,
testing the limits of a largely inexperienced work force only
half as big as in 1981. This was where the rubber met the runway.
“No,” Tierney said firmly. “I can’t.”
“Because it’s not safe. I know how many aircraft I can handle.”
Preoccupied with the twenty-two targets hopping across his scope,
Tierney did not notice the supervisor slide over to the keyboard
at the data position next to him. His superior typed the computer
ID codes for two or three more planes from the south and pressed
ENTER after each number, transferring responsibility
for them to Tierney. One by one, the pilots checked in on his
Suddenly realizing what was happening, Tierney exclaimed, “Hey,
why am I talking to these guys?”1
Fortunately, no near misses occurred.
Incidents like this, although more serious than most at the time,
typified the tumultuous culture of an air traffic system staggering
back to its feet after a reeling blow. The Reagan administration’s
dismissal of more than 11,000 federal employeeswho broke
the law by walking off the jobranks as one of the most regrettable
chapters in aviation history. Careers, families, even a few lives
were lost in a complex showdown of egos, greed, and legitimate
air safety and workplace issues.
For those who stayed on the job and the legions of replacement
controllers who joined them, an unfortunate sequel awaited. More
than half the world’s air traffic flew in the United States, creating
an immense challenge for the FAA to restore its decimated work
Aside from the sheer numbers of people involved, time pressures
weighed heavily on the system. New controllers typically spent
several months at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, followed by
two or more years of on-the-job training before they were considered
fully qualified. Even then, the seasoning process had barely begun.
But adversity also presented a singular possibility.
“The FAA had a golden opportunity to treat the new group of controllers
well and never have to face organization,” says Alexander “Doc”
Cullison, former president of the Marine Engineers Beneficial
Association, a labor union that has supported air traffic controllers.
“They had a malleable, optimistic work force that they could have
done anything in the world with if they had treated them properly.”
It was not to be.
During a brief honeymoon, managers and rank and file worked side
by side in a heroic effort to keep the traffic moving. The harmony
was short-lived, however, with an agency that could not shake
off its past habits.
As the turbulence subsided for the transition force, too many
autocratic managers reverted to their former roles. Controllers’
complaints about excessive time on position, inadequate staffing,
hasty training, and unreliable equipment were, for the most part,
dismissed as whining. Suggestions on operational procedures and
new equipment were rarely solicited and usually ignored. Yelling,
intimidation, and a fundamental lack of respect became commonplace.
Once again, managers relegated the front-line crew to the status
of hired hands rather than acknowledging them as partners in providing
By refusing to accept any responsibility for conditions that led
to the strike and allowing the same problems to fester, the agency
sowed new seeds of discontent that inevitably blossomed into another
Howie Barte, a founder of the National Air Traffic Controllers
Association, notes that many people were involved in the grass-roots
effort to form the new organization. But, he adds, “No one could
hold a candle to the best organizer we ever hadthe FAA.”
NATCA Takes Flight
On the morning of May 6, 1987, a single-engine plane towing a
white banner with black lettering droned above the vast Dallas
Metroplex. The cryptic inscription on the banner“Vote NATCA”left
many who saw it scratching their heads. But its intended audience
understood the message and stood proud. Ballots had just been
mailed across the country to more than 12,500 controllers, who
would decide whether to officially sanction a labor organization
that had been in the making for more than three years.
At Love Field in Dallas, the control tower manager expressed astonishment
as he peered through binoculars at the streaming pennant. Standing
nearby in the cramped glassed-in cab, where water leaked through
the ceiling tiles when it rained, controller Ed Mullin could not
resist chuckling. As a regional representative for the fledgling
group, Mullin had devised the banner ploy to boost voter turnout
in the decidedly anti-union state of Texas. If controllers saw
their name in lights, so to speak, the recognition might convince
them that NATCA had a chance to succeed. A satisfied smile played
on Mullin’s lips while he watched the plane disappear to the south
for a pass over Redbird Airport.
The hour-long flight also called for appearances above Addison
Airport, Fort Worth Meacham Airport, the perimeter of Dallas-Fort
Worth Airport, Fort Worth Center, and the FAA Regional Office
south of DFW. Although weather precluded flying over a few of
the destinations, the banner scored a hit with controllers.
Five weeks later, their sentiments were quantified when the government
tallied ballots from 86 percent of the work force. Seventy percent
approved NATCA as their exclusive bargaining agent. The new union,
formed while President Reagan still occupied the White House,
allowed air traffic controllers to reclaim their voice in the
workplace and provided organized labor with a much-needed comeback
John Leyden, the longtime president of the Professional Air
Traffic Controllers Organization who was ousted in a coup before
the strike, believes the achievement is a testament to the FAA
and labor in general. “If you could have a unionlike the
phoenixrebuilt, it was a great sign for the need for unions,”
A Walk in the Woods
Eleven years later, in early July 1998, four people gathered around
a table in a Montréal hotel conference room. NATCA President
Michael McNally and his predecessor, Barry Krasner, sat on one
side. FAA Administrator Jane Garvey and Tony Herman, a high-powered
Washington, D.C., attorney, faced them on the other side.
The 20-minute meeting, aimed at closing the deal on the union’s
third contract with the agency, represented the culmination of
a momentous journey. The groundwork for this gathering included
eighteen months of bargaining preparations and talks, an exhaustive
seven-year project to reclassify all air traffic control facility
rankings and their accompanying salary scales, and a concerted
legislative effort by the union that enabled NATCA and the FAA
to abandon the traditional government compensation schedule and
This crowning achievement would shortly put the federal-sector
union and its employer in the ranks of a very select group that
included such agencies as the U.S. Postal Service and Federal
Deposit Insurance Corporation.
At issue this morning was the amount of money the FAA would pay
15,000 controllers under the new facility classification system.
McNally and Herman haggled over millions of dollars while Krasner
and Garvey observed in silence. Finally, Herman offered $200 million.
The two NATCA negotiators briefly consulted before McNally turned
to the administrator and said, “You’ve got a deal, Jane.”
NATCA’s five-year contract with
the agency resulted in substantial pay raises for controllers.
More significantly, it was the first time they were compensated
for the complexity of their worknot just simple traffic
countswhile other provisions bound them ever more tightly
as partners with the FAA to ensure air safety and boost productivity.
“We had to change the relationship between management and labor
in order to meet the challenges,” Garvey says. Acknowledging that
some trust issues still need to be resolved in light of the agency’s
difficult history with its controller work force, she adds, “On
balance, there are more places where the relationship is more
positive than negative.”
The 1998 contract also represented another highlight in the union’s
relatively short but noteworthy history.
Earlier in the year, the AFL-CIO granted NATCA a direct charter.
The powerful labor organization preferred to consolidate its vast
array of affiliates and had reserved this honor for a mere handful
since NATCA was certified. The union cherished the recognition,
vindicating the once-tarnished reputation of controllers in the
house of organized labor.
Founded on the premise of gaining a voice in the workplace, NATCA
has evolved into what controllers like to think of as a white-collar
union that shuns strong-arm tactics. Top officers enjoy regular
access to the agency’s administratora hard-won victory that
finally ensures the union’s issues are clearly communicated to
the upper echelon. And while equipment and procedures historically
have been implemented with little or no controller input, twenty-nine
union liaisons and technical representatives now work full timevirtually
all of them at agency headquarterson about sixty-five projects.
NATCA’s role extends beyond the aviation community and the nation’s
borders. Members contribute about $1 million every election cycle
to a Political Action Committee fundthe second-highest average
per member of all union PACsthat is passed along to both
sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill.* One of its former National
Executive Board members serves as deputy president of the International
Federation of Air Traffic Controllers’ Associations, an influential
body that deals with the profession’s issues on a global level.
Two other union members serve on IFATCA committees.
Taking its charge of organizing the unorganized seriously, NATCA
has affiliated nineteen new bargaining units beyond its controller
ranks and now represents about 20,000 FAA workersincluding
engineers and architects, computer specialists, inspectors, nurses,
staff support personnel, and othersas well as some controllers
in the Defense Department and at towers run by private companies.
Seventy-five percent of represented workers are union members
(including 82 percent of FAA controllers), an exceedingly high
level in the federal sector.
At its core, a thousand or more dedicated activists serve as facility
representatives, on local executive boards, regional and national
committees, and in numerous other capacities to guide NATCA on
aviation and workplace safety issues, legislative affairs, finance,
communications, constitutional matters, and such.
“It is on their shoulders that
we have built our successes,” Executive Vice President Ruth Marlin
NATCA’s first national president and executive vice president
walked into a largely empty office, hired staff members, bought
furnishings and fax machines, and launched the union into flight.
As the organization grew, its leadership evolved, too. Each subsequent
administration adroitly adapted to the times and carried NATCA
In 2000, the union moved into its own seven-floor headquarters
in Washington. The spacious building is a far cry from the cramped
quarters it had leased across town at the offices of the Marine
Engineers Beneficial Association in 1987. Working conditions there
were so tight that NATCA’s director of labor relations conducted
business from a converted closet in the president’s office.
While NATCA rose from the ashes of its predecessor, the new union
has charted its own course and achieved unique successes. Even
so, both organizations trace their roots to very similar motivations