Thirty one years ago today, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization initiated a strike against the Federal Aviation Administration. While there can be no doubt that this collective action violated an oath taken by every federal employee, the reasons why this historic labor battle occurred are the subject of much debate. There is an interesting book, COLLISION COURSE -Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America by Joseph A. McCartin, the thesis of which is that the authoritarian management of the FAA executives created an atmosphere in which a union would thrive. That’s one plausible rationale.
Perhaps a more accurate way to analyze the PATCO saga and today’s second iteration, NATCA, is to search for the sources of the stress. The episodic evidence of the pressures created by the job description of controlling many high speed aircraft in complex airspace is so replete as to be accepted as intuitive.
How do controllers function in this job? They are universally excellent at memorizing and processing “IF …THEN” statements. For example, a controller must internalize the following typical statement: “IF AA801 is on heading 110, THEN the aircraft must be at FL 14 and at frequency 125.19.” Such a mental skill is characterized by the term linear thinking. This talent has its limitations; the people endowed with such mental “wiring” tend to see things in black and white, absolutes. Their limitations have to do with addressing grays. Controllers constitute a most concentrated collection of linear thinkers.
Professor McCartin’s book notes that PATCO’s leaders insisted that the supervisors and managers at towers, TRACONs and ARTCCs, must have experience and time spent at the positions over which they would watch. Their logic was that you had to have performed those functions in order to be able to assess the line controllers’ performance. While there is some value to the insights gained by having sat in those seats, the supervisor/manager requirement that he/she must hold a controller alumnus or alumna card may have exacerbated the tension in the workplace.
Linear thinkers, according to most intelligence scientists, do not make great managers. Because they see things in absolutes, they are not gifted in providing good feedback. The “IF…THEN” thinker tends to find fault and is not as able to grasp what the recipient of the counsel has done well. Their view does not typically reach to the bridge (“yes, John, you are great at your readbacks, but need to improve your separation skills”) between strength and needed improvement which is the hallmark of good feedback.
Tales of floor supervisors literally pulling their underlings off of their scopes and walking them to a visible spot where they excoriate the individual who just committed a system error are rampant in ATC lore. The absolutist approach is driven by the mental acuity, which qualified the supervisor to be an able working controller, but that talent became a liability when she/he assumed the supervisory position.
The tension, which ensued, is one reason why the average controller felt as though there were confrontational relationships with management. That atmosphere contributed to the success of PATCO and to the rebirth of NATCA. It is probably too late to rectify the poison that exists between the FAA ATO management and the rank and file.
NextGen’s technology creates a new job description. The pilot has limitless flight options from which to choose due to the geometry of the satellite based systems. The FAA representatives, who will receive the flight plan and who follow the aircraft’s path through the AT system, will no longer solely CONTROL traffic. The NextGen job description for this person is to MANAGE the traffic; linear thinking’s value is diminished; while problem solving, sharing information and coordinating operations move up the value chain.
This transition should allow ATO executives to better define the skill sets of supervisors, managers and the persons who will interface with the aircraft. For far too long, the mental strengths of the people in charge contributed to a less than ideal work place.Share this article: