NATCA Reflects Back on November 1985’s Nightline Report
Friday, November 19, 2010
Twenty-five years ago, several brave controllers took to ABC News “Nightline” with the truth of overworked air traffic control facilities nationwide. In what was the first major television broadcast about the topic since the 1981 strike, air traffic controller Howie Barte and Rep. Guy Molinari, R-N.Y., took part in an extensive debate on Nov. 13, 1985 with then FAA Administrator Donald Engen.
Former PATCO member, and now retired NATCA member, Barte challenged Engen’s contention that the FAA was sufficiently staffed with controllers and that management had since changed, while in reality these particulars were far from accurate. New York TRACON controller Joe O’Brien, and two unidentified controllers due to fear of reprimand, voiced their opinions as well, sharing in Barte’s sentiment that, though the nation’s controllers were continuing to make the system work, they were stretched to the limit as staffing shortages and increases in air traffic hit the National Airspace System.
At the time of the ’85 interview, the same problems existed that were present four years prior, and had actually gotten worse. In fact, 1,000 more flights a day were reported than in 1981, an air traffic increase of 10 percent since the strike. During this same period, the number of fully qualified controllers dropped from 13,311 to 8,315, and near misses consequently doubled.
Though the FAA continued to deny the serious problem, Congress became more and more insistent in its criticism of the FAA, and more so that President Ronald Reagan reevaluate his decision regarding the nation’s fired air traffic controllers. It was during the broadcast that Molinari informed Engen of his intent to deliver a letter to President Ronald Reagan signed by more than 70 members of the House requesting reinstatement for some of the fired controllers.
Barte, meanwhile, remained committed in his efforts to organize a union to replace PATCO, with help from O’Brien as well as fellow PATCO member Steve Bell who would later fill the role as first NATCA president. In regards to management’s actions two to four months after the strike, Barte said the FAA was mistaken if they thought controllers could continue operating “on guts” the way they were forever, and remained hopeful that within a year another controllers’ union would be functioning. “We need more people,” concluded Barte sternly to Engen after discussing not only the understaffing, but the lack of confidence that existed among the less than qualified controllers as well as the overtime numbers across the country that contradicted much, if not all, of the information Engen was sharing with America’s fliers.
“In 1985,” explains Barte now, “controllers were being abused on a daily basis by a management that was not accountable. Yet, controllers were fearful of management retribution if they supported a union. The obstacles to organizing the newer controllers were endless; their fear of management retribution was very high if they supported a union, as well as their fear of another possible union strike call. But ultimately, we prevailed. It is a very significant historical fact that only six short years after the unsuccessful PATCO strike which President Reagan used as an opportunity to attempt to decimate the labor movement in America, NATCA won its FLRA certification election by 70 percent to 30 percent - a huge victory for labor in general, and the nation's air traffic controllers in particular.”
NATCA has come a long way in its 23-year history, due in large part to its dedicated activists of the past and present. Appreciated for its expertise in aviation, and commanding respect from every facet of the industry, NATCA has proven over and over that air traffic controllers are the one component that the air traffic system cannot do without, and that the air traffic controller is the ultimate resource when it comes to air traffic system know-how.
“I am very fortunate and EXTREMELY proud to have been a primary driving factor in NATCA's founding," says Barte, "and I look forward to NATCA's continued success and growing influence in the aviation community.”