Friday, October 29, 2010
Thirty-Day Suspension Upheld
NATCA recently received an arbitration award in a 30-day suspension case for conduct unbecoming of an air traffic controller. The case is instructive in several respects. Even though the union had several valid technical arguments as to why the controller’s conduct was not unprofessional, the arbitrator completely rejected the union’s arguments and upheld the 30-day suspension. What went wrong? The controller was accused of two incidents of unprofessional conduct. First, the agency alleged that the controller compromised safety by unplugging during a relief briefing because the relieving controller became verbally abusive. At the time the grievant was a Certified Professional Controller In Training and was plugged in during a training session with his OJTI when the relief briefing occurred. In the second situation, a supervisor lowered the controller’s ground metering strip board without asking him while he was working the position because the local control position could not see the airfield. The controller raised the strip board back up to his preferred height and, after a brief disagreement, the supervisor removed him from the position.
NATCA argued that the grievant believed he was authorized to unplug and to lower the strip board, and that both situations resulted from miscommunication in the high stress environment of active air traffic control operations. Despite the testimony of several witnesses that the OJTI is responsible for the position and that trainees are permitted to step back if they have “lost the picture,” and that no one should adjust a controller’s equipment without first asking, the arbitrator rejected the union’s arguments and faulted the grievant for the manner in which he handled both situations. The arbitrator cautioned the grievant that he should have taken responsibility for his actions rather than blaming others, and that he should not have allowed his personal feelings to compromise the safety of the operation.
The case illustrates the concept of “comply now, grieve later.” Had the grievant completed the relief briefing and then complained about the verbal harassment by the relieving controller, or had he agreed to lower the strip board and then later addressed the proper protocol for adjusting equipment on position, he would never have been disciplined. As the arbitrator held, the number one concern is the safety of the operation, and the controller has a professional obligation at all times to put safety first and deal with workplace disputes off position. This is an important take-away message from this case. In addition, the arbitrator faulted the grievant for his attitude and unwillingness to own up to his part in both situations. This is another important lesson from this case: if you make a mistake, it is better to accept responsibility for your actions and commit to doing better in the future. Again, had the grievant admitted that he got upset and overreacted, but that he would do his best not to let it happen again, the agency may have done nothing or may have issued a less severe penalty. In the final analysis, controllers have to work together and follow procedure in a professional manner, and sometimes, it does not pay to insist that you were right and everyone else was wrong.