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Air Traffic Controller Strike


With dramatic increases in commercial airline traffic following World War II (193945), Congress established the Federal Aviation Agency in 1958, which it later renamed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Congress entrusted the agency with many responsibilities related to air travel in the United States, including the control of both civil and military use of U.S. airspace for purposes of safety and efficiency. To fulfill its charge, the FAA established and operated a network of airport control towers and 20 air route control centers spaced across the nation. Air traffic controllers manning the towers and centers guided planes from takeoff to landing by using of radar and verbal communication with pilots. As air travel steadily grew, air traffic controllers were increasingly subjected to high levels of stress, since they directed numerous airliners carrying thousands of persons in an crowded sky.

By passing the Airline Deregulation Act in 1978, Congress lifted broad federal controls over airlines including approving new carriers, setting ticket prices, and limiting air routes. A surge of new airlines and air routes further taxed the already stretched air control system. Increasingly tight airline schedules placed more pressures on the controllers themselves. The FAA employed more than 16,000 controllers by the end of the 1970s. Finally, in August of 1981, in protest of the stressful working conditions, and demanding higher salaries, 11,000 air traffic controllers went on strike. Their union, Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), organized the work stoppage. As public employees they were forbidden to strike and PATCO's action was deemed illegal. The strike threatened to have a major economic impact on the nation and international trade as well. Consequently, President Ronald Reagan (198189) gave the strikers three days to return to work or be fired. When most striking controllers refused to return, they were fired and PATCO dissolved. In the wake of the firing, the FAA quickly imposed new restrictions on air traffic flow. The agency temporarily reduced the number of flights by one third to ease demands on overworked centers and answer public fears of safety concerns. In desperate need of experienced controllers, for more than a decade the FAA hired retired former employees in areas with critical personnel shortages.

The shortage of fully skilled and experienced air traffic controllers significantly affected airline operations. It was difficult to increase the number of full-performance level controllers since many of those who were not fired retired or moved up into management positions. During the summer and fall of 1984 significant disruption of airline schedules occurred. The understaffed system inspired policies that would rather error on the side of caution during times of bad weather, but the airlines found this conservative approach very expensive. Airlines claimed flight delays caused by undermanned controller facilities and outdated equipment was costing the industry a fortune. Traffic bottlenecks at major airports, such as New York and Chicago, were frequent and led to flight disruptions across the country.

As new airlines attempted to break into the larger markets in the aftermath of airline deregulation, they found the restrictions associated with the rebuilding of the controller work force a difficult hurdle. Some argued that it would have been less costly and less disruptive to air travel over the long term to give the controllers the raise they were requesting in 1981. Nonetheless, since air traffic continued to boom, others believed that President Reagan was right to uphold the principle that government workers are forbidden to strike. More than a decade later, President Bill Clinton (1993) invited the previously fired air traffic controllers to apply for their jobs.

Following the firings, the FAA had also pledged to overhaul and modernize the air traffic control system. The agency developed the National Airspace System Plan, which had estimated budget of almost 16 billion dollars for implementation. Although some new hardware, such as Aircraft Situation Display computers, was installed by 1990, the aging system remained only partially updated with newer equipment despite approximately a half billion dollars spent. Although a largely computer-automated system was in the development stage during the 1990s to address the ever increasing air traffic levels of commercial flight, the FAA was accused of moving too slowly in developing and approving new flight control systems.

Repercussions of the 1981 mass firing may have significantly extended into the U.S. labor movement. The actions by Reagan sent a message to private industry that firing striking workers and hiring replacements was an acceptable practice. Some observers considered the firing of the controllers a watershed event in U.S. labor relations. Statistics on union activism indicated that between 1960 and 1981, approximately 275 strikes occurred in the United States annually and involved 1.3 million workers each year. Between 1981 and 1992, the annual number of strikes fell to 56 and involved just over 400,000 workers annually. The peak era of labor strikes was clearly the early 1970s.

See also: Ronald W. Reagan


Campagna, Anthony S. The Economy in the Reagan Years: The Economic Consequences of the Reagan Administrations. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Nordlund, Willis J. Silent Skies: The Air Traffic Controllers' Strike. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998.

Northrup, Herbert R., and Amie D. Thornton. The Federal Government as Employer: The Federal Labor Relations Authority and the PATCO Challenge. Philadelphia: Industrial Research Unit, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, 1988.

Shostak, Arthur B., and David Skocik. The Air Controllers' Controversy: Lessons from the PATCO Strike. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1986.

Wickens, Christopher D., Anne S. Mavor, and James P. McGee, eds. Flight to the Future: Human Factors in Air Traffic Control. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1997.

but replacing the air traffic controllers wasn't only meant to save money. it also let managers in every industry know that it was o.k. to fire strikers. and word got out, as greyhound, phelps dodge and eastern airlines broke major strikes by hiring replacements.

"a day in the life," the nation, february 19, 1996

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