Thornton’s Vision of Manager/Employee Relations may be Achievable if the NextGen HR Organization is better Designed

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ARTICLE: Key Organizer Of Air Traffic Control Union, NATCA Dies At 68


John Thornton’s life and his work with NATCA are well chronicled in the attached article. His efforts to form a bargaining unit to replace the decertified PATCO were courageous and necessary.

This obituary quotes Thornton’s thoughts about how the union and the FAA should relate are most telling:

“We want a non-adversarial relationship with the FAA Not a lot of rhetoric. Not a lot of confrontation. If we went out and started condemning them, got that old antagonism going again, we really couldn’t expect them to say, ‘OK, we’ll deal with you in a upright manner.’”

Though Thornton, his colleagues and FAA management tried to achieve the goals stated in his quote, they failed. There was a major dispute over the contract between labor and management—so bad that the House of Representatives had to be involved to resolve the disagreement. NATCA press releases and FAA statements continue to point fingers at each other without regard to the change in the names and natures of the executive and labor leader .

The existing job of a working controller requires the person at the scope to memorize a number of “if-then” statements—i.e. if the airplane is located here, then it should be at altitude XX,000. The mental skill, needed to incorporate such statements into one’s thinking processes, is called linear thinking. The acumen is very similar to the logic of binominal computers. The controllers are good at recalling these critical bits of information and applying it.

For whatever reasons, noble or not, the original design of the ATC organization decided that all controllers MUST be supervised and managed by controllers. That organizational design guarantees that labor and management are highly likely to have a contentious relationship. Why? Because linear thinkers are generally poor, even bad, managers.

The job of reviewing the performance of a subordinate is a nuanced, multivariate process. For example, not all human actions merit the same supervisory reaction; the linear thinker tends to react in a formulaic manner. So long as controllers are the only source of people to manage controllers, there will be human relations dysfunctions at lowest levels and that tension exacerbates as the levels of management are piled up.

The most benevolent senior executive at the FAA cannot overcome such institutional problems because the problem is endemic to the organizational design problem. Mr. Thornton’s well-meaning words failed because of this same HR issue. The fact that on a daily basis air traffic control supervisors, as a generalization (there are exceptions), will engender problems in their mundane actions.

NextGen will change the nature of a controller’s job description. Under the new computer and navigational capabilities, the individuals who occupy the new positions will no longer “direct” or “control” traffic. The computers will provide almost all of the directions directly to the cockpit. The person, whose job will be to interface between the pilots and the computers, will have a different task, to help manage the situation. The FAA needs to redesign the criteria by which it hires these new air traffic managers. Equally important the parameters of the job functions of the folks who supervise and manage the first line NextGen personnel also must be redesigned to reflect the relevant skills.

Mr. Thornton’s vision may be achievable in the next iteration of organizational design of the human structure of NextGen. His words and his vision can define a new way of doing business.

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