The NATCA Family mourns the passing of a beloved brother and friend, Barrett Byrnes, who succumbed to a hard-fought battle with cancer on Wednesday at his home in Setauket, N.Y.
A charter member of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) and former President/Facility Representative at John F. Kennedy (JFK) Tower in New York City, Barrett was one of this organization’s most dedicated and extraordinary representatives and legislative activists.
The son of one of New York’s first air traffic controllers, Ralph “Buddy” Byrnes, Barrett, 59, became an air traffic controller in 1973. He began working for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 1982 in various facilities, including Dutchess County Airport in Wappingers Falls, N.Y. For the final 14 years of his distinguished career, Barrett was a fully certified professional controller (CPC) at JFK Tower.
Barrett served the union in numerous capacities throughout his career, including as an Air Safety Investigator to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and as a media spokesperson on several high-profile aviation safety matters in the New York City media market. However, Barrett’s true passion was his legislative activism.
For over 20 years, Barrett was the face of NATCA and of aviation safety for the New York congressional delegation. In the December 1998 edition of The Air Traffic Controller newsletter, Barrett summed up the benefit to his bipartisan outreach efforts. He said, “Whenever the representatives see controllers at an event back home, they always announce our presence and thank us.” He concluded, “Our dedication really sinks in, and they realize we aren’t there for just a handout.”
Barrett’s legislative portfolio included Republican representatives Sue Kelly, Peter King and Susan Molinari, as well as Democratic representatives Steve Israel, Carolyn McCarthy, Tim Bishop, Gary Ackerman and Jerry Nadler. In April of 2000, Barrett testified before the House Aviation Subcommittee on pilot-controller communications after the crash of an Egypt Air flight.
Barrett worked as a controller for more than 35 years before retiring on Sept. 30, 2008, less than two weeks after his 56th birthday forced his retirement. On June 11, 2011, Barrett married Jacqueline Taylor at the couple’s home in Setauket.
Barrett touched the hearts of so many people in his NATCA family. Here is what some of them have to say:
“Barrett was loved by many of us and was a true NATCA brother. He was the consummate legislative activist and set the gold standard in building Congressional relationships. He mentored many NATCA activists before we had our NATCA reloaded program. He was the ultimate gentleman and an unwavering loyal friend. Heaven just became a better place. We will miss you brother.”
-Paul Rinaldi, NATCA President
“When I was facility representative in the ‘90s, Barrett was the influence in my NATCA family that taught me the importance of legislative and political activism. Soon after leaving that position, my focus and motivation turned in that direction. He was a mentor, a colleague, an inspiration and family. My heart is very heavy knowing that I can’t enjoy his company any longer. I am thankful for the many great memories.”
-Patricia Gilbert, NATCA Executive Vice President
“Barrett could best be described, as my wife [Sallie] always said, as a gentleman’s gentleman. He was kind and caring and always put the needs of others ahead of his own. There was a time when I was in almost 100 percent travel status. During those times Barrett would call Sallie at least two or three times a week just to make sure there was nothing he could help with in my absence. This type of behavior was typical for Barrett because he genuinely cared about those with whom he interacted. It didn’t matter if he was your representative, or your friend. Twenty-four/seven Barrett was there, and he always had your back.”
-Barry Krasner, NATCA Executive Director
“I am saddened to say that we have lost our dear friend and brother, Barrett Byrnes. He passed away quietly and serenely with his lovely bride Jacqueline at his side. I know we will all remember Barrett as a person that always put the needs of others before his own. His passion for his friends and his union was nothing less than amazing. As a close friend of his I can tell you he brought that very same zeal to his personal life, and being in his company was always a pleasure. We can take comfort in the fact that he was loved and that he lived life to the fullest. Please keep our fallen brother in your thoughts and raise a glass for him because I am certain he will be toasting us.”
-Phil Barbarello, NATCA Eastern Region Regional Vice President
“I lost a very dear friend, a friend to many of my NATCA brothers and sisters. Barrett was the gentleman of gentlemen. For those who knew him, from members of Congress or congressional staff, to the Air Traffic Managers he repeatedly disarmed, he was always the gentleman! He would beat you down, then he would shake your hand and thank you for your contribution to the argument or for your participation in the whooping he just gave you. Somehow, when he was done, you felt like you owed him for his time and effort. Funny, 20-something years ago walking Capitol Hill with Barrett, he would walk up to everyone – I mean everyone – the guards, the staff, custodians! It didn’t matter, ‘Barrett Byrnes, JFK, glad to meet you’; he’d hand them a NATCA pin and they would be completely committed to his words. When Barrett talked to them, he looked them in the eyes and for that second or that minute they were the most important person on the planet.
I’m sorry if some of this is out of context for those who didn’t know him, and for those who did, you get what I’m saying. I have had a few toasts to our friend and it won’t be my last. These also won’t be the last words spoken about Barrett! This union owes a great deal to the work this man did for all of us. These are just a few of the things you will hear about him over the next few days and in my opinion, compliments are great, but no words or thoughts will be the same as having him here with us today. Miss you brother!!!”
-Andy Lewis, NATCA Eastern Region Legislative Chairman, Eastern Region Occupational Safety, Health & Environmental Committee Representative, Eastern Region Reloaded Representative
“When I think of what we should all embody as union members and activists, I think of the leadership that Barrett Byrnes exhibited throughout his life. Everyone was “brother” to Barrett; he was always there with advice, to lend a sympathetic ear or to provide that much needed laugh.
Whenever I saw Barrett, he always had this larger than life smile to greet you, followed by a hug and “How have you been, my brother?” Sometimes the smiles and handshakes were too numerous to count throughout the course of an evening, each time as if he hadn’t seen you in months.
Barrett was one of those people that you always wanted on your team. Aside from the energy and dedication he brought to the job, he made everyone around him better. I am fortunate to have known him, blessed to have served with him and proud to call him brother.”
-Tony Yushinsky, NATCA Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control
“JFK mourns the passing of Barrett: our brother, our friend and our leader. We saw a side of Barrett that most in NATCA never saw. We saw Barrett the controller and co-worker. Barrett never came into the tower in a bad mood; he loved working airplanes and was always willing to lend a hand if you were struggling. He loved NATCA and the rights of his local members were always his first priority. While he always smiled in the tower, his demeanor in management meetings was a completely different game. His approach was always the same, ‘We need to win; losing is not an option.’ His competitive spirit never ceased. He realized, when dealing with adversaries, that his intellectual capital far exceeded his opponents'. He was the most tactful guy in the room and in the rare event when his argument was not the best, his reliance on guile always produced positive results. Barrett loved life; he worked hard, played hard and fought for the union hardest of all. He was the proudest NATCA member. He will be sorely missed. Our loss is heaven’s gain.”
-Steve Abraham, NATCA Facility Representative, John F. Kennedy Air Traffic Control Tower
"Words could never fully express what Barrett has meant to my family and to me. For whatever reason he took me under his wing nearly 20 years ago when we first met. As time went by we grew closer and closer until we and our family's were connected by much more than just friendship. but by genuine love. He's known and loved all of my kids since they were first born.
"It's been a long difficult year and the last few weeks have been just incredibly heartbreaking. Over these last few months I've spent as much free time with him as I could, knowing that our time together here could and would probably end soon. I feel truly blessed and grateful that over these last few weeks we were inseparable.
"As many of you know, when a loved one goes the pain is relentless. In between all the pain are some moments of calm that will someday outweigh most of the grief. These last few days I've spent a lot of time reflecting and trying to understand the meaning and purpose of it all. I guess for everyone the answers may be slightly different. One thing I know for sure, is that if even just a little bit of Barrett has rubbed off on me, I'm blessed; I'm better than the average man and I'm a better person altogether."
-Ray Maldonado, Legislative Representative, NATCA New York TRACON
"There's a phrase that those of us in the Eastern Region used to describe Barrett: 'Not enough o's in smooth!' Partnering on a Congressional meeting with Barrett was like watching Picasso paint. First of all, he knew everyone in the office by name as well as their 'story', from the greenest intern right up to the Chief of Staff.
"Barrett's greatest gift to us though was as a mentor. He embraced the role. Time and time again, he would bring an inexperienced person along on a meeting or to a fundraiser, and by the end of the event another activist was born. He couldn’t help but share his joy in what he was doing and it was indeed infectious. He had the astounding gift of making you feel like you were the most important person in the room, and to him you were. I've never heard Barrett say no to a request from a NATCA brother or a NATCA employee. He always made himself available for whatever was needed and always hit the ball out of the park.
"I look back at the last 12 years of my life and think of all the opportunities I've had and the places I've been to and the people I've met and worked with and most of it wouldn't have happened if Barrett didn't take me under his wing one January morning in D.C. He wasn't doing anything special particularly for me because I saw him do the same thing another two dozen times in the coming years to others. He was just being himself. I always knew he was special, but looking back these past few days I'm so, so glad I had the chance to know him, to learn from him, and be around him. Barrett was truly a great man."
-Joe Zimmermann, NATCA ZNY, legislative activist
“Barrett helped set the standard for legislative activism within NATCA. He raised the bar for all the activists that would follow him. The legacy Barrett leaves behind is seen every day in the relationships we’ve built on Capitol Hill and in the activism of our members who learned from his example.”
-Steve Weidner, NATCA National Legislative Committee
“Barrett Byrnes was one of my first introductions to NATCA and he was amazing. He was passionate, fun and serious about his leadership and work. He was relentless not only in his approach towards legislative activism for NATCA, but in his approach towards living. Everyone loved and respected Barrett. He will be missed dearly.”
-Jose Ceballos, Director, NATCA Government Affairs
Above: NATCA President Paul Rinaldi (right) presents Barrett Byrnes with a special award during a tribute to his career and NATCAvism at the 2009 NATCA in Washington legislative conference. Joe Zimmermann and Andy Lewis are on Barrett's right side. To view the video of this special presentation, and Barrett's acceptance remarks, please click here