Mr. Poli’s PATCO strike was lost for reasons beyond politics

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There is no doubt that Robert Poli was a charismatic, determined union leader, whose air traffic controller strike against the FAA impacted the direction of the labor movement. The below obituary fairly reviews Mr. Poli’s roles (some good, some not so good) in the strike. There was more to why this strike was not successful.

The New York Times obituary and the book cited therein , “Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike That Changed America by Joseph A. McCartin, reexamine the internal PATCO battles and the politics with President Reagan as their primary themes. Not enough details are devoted to what FAA management did in terms of practical operational strategy to respond to the illegal walk out of 11,000 federal workers. Further, there were (unknown) fissures between the controller union and their natural allies, and all of those “faults” worked to the detriment of the strikers.

There are many ways to address a strike in the manufacturing industry; most likely, when the threat becomes real, the company will increase production to create a reserve while the workers are out. During the disruption, the employer has a stream of revenue while the factory is closed.

That option is not available in a service business. Further, the FAA’s ATC service produces airspace capacity which the airlines (and other users) utilize to move passengers and cargo. That is not a commodity that can be stored in anticipation of the work stoppage.

PATCO forecast that a major reduction in aviation operations would translate to the creation of a coalition that would express their political support to Mr. Poli’s demands for significantly increased salaries—passengers, shippers, airlines, associated unions (pilots, cabin crew and machinists) and Congress. These forces were counted on by Mr. Poli and his executive team to be the fulcrums. Their loud, angry complaints, he anticipated, would force the President, the Secretary of Transportation, the FAA Administrator and Congress to accede to their demands. The analysis failed because some of their perceived leverage proved to be without substance.

Secretary of Transportation Lewis, Administrator Helms and the FAA career staff devised several analyses, tactics and strategies to respond to the strike.

Preparation by the Helms’ team was thorough and well designed. Within the towers, TRACONs and centers, the supervisory, staff and management corps are almost entirely controllers who moved up into management. Since they were not part of PATCO, those who could requalified for the live ATC positions. Leaves during the likely strike were not granted. To the extent possible, there would be additional bodies to help control traffic after August 3, 1981

The FAA had its own controller training facility; at headquarters’ direction, it hired extra instructors and reduced the curriculum to what was absolutely needed. When PATCO declared its strike, there was an inventory of qualified ready applicants who would be put through the course and sent to the field as soon as they passed the rigorous tests.

Another tactic was for the FAA to borrow military controllers. Air Force, Navy and Army airfields have ATC facilities with qualified personnel. The Defense Department allowed them to transfer to similar civilian positions. Some of them released lower level towers to help staff the more impacted ones.

It is important to remember the economic times of 1981. The economy was not great and passenger demand was soft. More importantly, it was three years after the Deregulation Act was implemented. In response to the unleashing of the CAB’s restraints on route growth, the airlines expanded their system of service to an extraordinary new set of cities. That somewhat irrational growth was negatively impacting their margins. The DoT knew about the airlines’ willingness to cut back, because they had access to their numbers as the remnant of the CAB, current data was reported to Washington.

The key strategic premise of the FAA’s management in response to the PATCO strike was to establish flight limits at the impacted airports. This rule was intended to allow the airlines to manage their schedules. Other possible approaches would have reduced flights by length of flight or other parameters. This tactical response gave the airlines some control over their product.

The air carriers were not overjoyed, but in some ways it was a minor blessing. They had control of their schedules and they could try to optimize their offerings. One approach was to “depeak” flights at hubs, by moving flights to early or late time slots. Some airlines, in particular Southwest, moved flights to secondary airports where more ATC staff remained on the job.

The airlines and their employees were well aware of the historical tactics of PATCO. In the recent past, when a labor issue arose at a local facility or when the national union wanted to make a statement, they would call wildcat work stoppages. Those unannounced actions wreaked havoc on the ATC system, causing massive delays and cancellations. When these disruptions occurred, complaints were registered with FAA management; so their animosity was well known in Washington. This PATCO history minimized the likelihood that this group of potential sympathizers would support the striking controllers. In fact, none of the airline unions crossed the controllers’ picket lines.

One of the most powerful players in the Washington aviation political sphere of influence was the pilots union, ALPA. Pilots have good salaries and the individuals and the union are able to make major political donations. Melvin Belli, a lawyer for and friend of PATCO, frequently equated the skills of controllers with the pilots’ abilities. Thus, he argued that both should receive the same salaries. Nothing so annoyed ALPA than that claim.

Another random incident contributed to PATCO’s isolation. For his own reasons (secrecy?), Mr. Poli did not tell the AFL/CIO about the impending strike. The largest umbrella union and its Washington leadership were in Chicago at a major convention. Since they would not cross the strikers’ picket line, the senior AFL/CIO executives chartered a bus for the long ride home. About an hour from the Windy City, the vehicle’s air conditioning ceased to function and the oppressive August heat on the Midwest plains changed the riders’ resolve. Somewhere they resorted to a plane for the ride back.

Perhaps the critical reason why the FAA and the traveling public succeeded was the careful management of the ATC system by those who worked the positions. No risks were taken, the procedures were followed, the pilots cooperated and every flight operated without incident. More controllers came out of the FAA Academy and additional flights were added to the system by October. The public opinion was largely unsympathetic towards the PATCO cause, particularly when they heard what their salary demands were in this tough economy.

Mr. Poli tried his best to make a radical change in the pay of his members. It is true that the relationship between the FAA and the controllers was not good. There were reasons for a union to take actions other than a strike. PATCO’s leader had a flawed vision of how the strike would work. Some of the error was attributable to expecting that his members would gain support from travelers, pilots, mechanics, flight attendants, unions, Congress and even the President.

The biggest flaw in his game plan was his expectation that with 11,000 people leaving their ATC position, the system would come to a halt. The FAA Administrator and his Senior Management team devised methods to limit the initial impact and to rebuild the system in the intermediate and long terms. That surprised Mr. Poli and PATCO.

Rest in peace, Robert E. Poli, a good guy just trying to do what he thought was right and kind of got boxed into a corner”, to quote his son.

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