A 20/20 retrospective of August 3, 1981

typical flow of ATC flights
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PATCO struck August 3, 1981

History has many different judgments  about its significance

Some informed observations

Today is the 40th anniversary of the PATCO strike, August 3, 1981. Historians and public policy experts have characterized it in a broad spectrum of judgments—highly critical to positively historic. This post does not attempt to express such opinions, but will share some observations[1]:

AG French, DOT S-1 Lewis and President Reagan

  1. PATCO’s action morally justified FALSE
    1. Contemplate the national airspace system on August 2 at 23:59. The controllers left their positions with many airplanes depending on ATC to “guide them home”. As they left the towers and centers, they did not know whether the passengers would land safely. (see above representative image of the NAS).
    2. Federal law[2] states that government employees are not allowed to strike, or even talk about striking.[3]
    3. President Calvin Coolidge famously intoned in 1918, that “there is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime.”[interesting quote, not cited for strength of legal argument]

statement from University of Chicago Law School paper










2. PATCO was overconfident based on legal advice and leadership- TRUE



a. F. Lee Bailey, a well-known criminal litigator and pilot, took up the PATCO cause. He frequently made it clear that he saw that the union would win. PATCO attorney Richard Leightonis said  to have opined the contrary view, based, one would expect, on 18 USC 1918. The Bailey view of the law evidently prevailed.

Curran statementb. Robert Poli, relatively new president of the union, aggressively negotiated with the Reagan FAA. He demanded an across-the-board annual wage increase of $10,000 for the controllers, whose pay ranged from $20,462 to $49,229 a year. He also sought a reduction of their five-day, 40-hour workweek to a four-day, 32-hour workweek. The FAA made a $40 million counteroffer, far short of the $770 million package that the union sought. PATCO members rejected this unprecedented settlement and walked out on August 3, with thousands of planes in flight

.c. The strike did not attract much sympathy from the general populace and thus from the politicians. The economy was in the midst of a recession and the demand for a $10,000 pay increase offended the many unemployed. PATCO’s public relations campaign did little to respond to this already comfortable impression. The Congress did not advocate for the strikers at the level the union expected. The biggest problem from a labor politics standpoint was the lack of support from the AFL-CIO.[4] Poli appears to have expected a general strike from PATCO’s parent union.[5] It never materialized, and this powerful lever was not added to the strike.

Poli Picketing

Poli Picketing


















d. Proof of PATCO’s failed legal analysis was amply demonstrated by contrary decisions from a number of different courts and every administrative body asserting jurisdiction :

    1. A federal judge found PATCO President Robert Poli to be in contempt of court, and the union is ordered to pay a $1,000 fine for each day its members are on strike.
    2. Criminal charges were prepared in order to bring cases against union leaders, while court proceedings began to force strikers back to work. On August 6, five PATCO officials were arrested and jailed for resisting court injunctions against a strike. Other union leaders were also hauled off for disobeying judicial back-to-work orders. Meanwhile, the Justice Department indicted 75 other controllers.
    3. US Attorneys (96 in number) sought TROs in their federal district, and all of the Judges granted the extraordinary relief.
    4. The administration also filed a petition asking for decertification of the union and the Federal Labor Relations Authority on October 22, 1981 the union ceased to exist. The decision was appealed but to no avail, and attempts to use the courts to reverse the firings proved fruitlesPATCO logo

3. A changed FAA operational tactic was a huge reason for its ability to sustain traffic-TRUE

Time cover


a.The Carter Administration began planning for the strike expected in 1981. Based on the availability of alternative ground transportation, all short-haul flights would be cancelled. The then Commuter Airlines Association objected, indicating without flights in these stage lengths, they would all soon be bankrupt.

Administrator Helms and his ATC Chief, Ray VanVuren, decided to establish what percentages of flights could be safely handled at towers, TRACONs and centers. Each airline would decide, within these percentages which of their recent schedules, flights would best be operated[6]. FAA Helms DOT Lewis


This tactic allowed the FAA and the industry to fly safely and grow back as the ATC Staffing increased.

b.Another tactic which surprised the strikers, 3,000 supervisors retrained to be ready to move to the scopes where they joined 2,000 controllers who honored their oaths. About 900 military controllers took positions, mostly at VFR towers.


The ATC Academy at Oklahoma City facility cranked up its pace to teach the people recruited to be controllers.

FAA Oklahoma ATC Academy 1981 graduates







After 40 years, one of the PATCO complaints, antiquated equipment, is in the final stages of implementation. If Drew Lewis had acceded to the last Poli demand, controllers would be satisfied by their greater pay. In retrospect, a promise of new computers, communications, radars and pilot-controller interface (elements of today’s Next Gen, which has been in process since 1981) would not have been fulfilled in the short term.

Quaere : would PATCO have been picketing for this non-financial demand’s immediate implementation?


 [1] The author of this post was the FAA Chief Counsel during the strike.

[2] 18 USC 1918: Disloyalty and asserting the right to strike against the Government-  

(3) participates in a strike, or asserts the right to strike, against the Government of the United States…

(4) is a member of an organization of employees of the Government of the United States or of individuals employed by the government of the District of Columbia that he knows asserts the right to strike against the Government of the United States

See also 5 U.S.C. § 7311 Loyalty and striking

President Reagan PATCO


[3]In 1955 Congress passes a statute criminalizing federal employee strikes  by fines or a one-year jail term — a law the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in 1971.


[4] the AFL-CIO bureaucracy led by Lane Kirkland—a cold-war patriot- had no stomach for widening the conflict.

[5] Urban legend has it that the AFL-CIO leadership was meeting in Chicago during the early part of August. The leaders opted to take buses back to the East and not to fly. But when the air conditioning failed, they found a flight back.

[6] The commuter airlines fed the trunkline airlines and made the hubs work.

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