Disclaimer: Through the course of my work on netroots events, I have had a limited working relationship with NATCA, encouraging them to become more involved in the netroots via partnerships and sponsorships.
A number of years ago, I had the good fortune of befriending an air traffic controller. Like cops, medical personnel, and others in high risk or stressful jobs, they have a tendency to flock together. One air traffic controller friend soon turned into a small posse and I've been thankful to know them all. They are talented and dedicated, often excelling in other areas, like a lot of "type A" personalities. I've known air traffic controllers to go on to become doctors, lawyers, CPA's, chefs, professional photographers, and much more -- all in addition to their career as a controller -- often doing those other jobs as a "hobby." To say they are a smart bunch is an understatement. Day in and day out, they are responsible for tens or hundreds of thousands of lives and there is no question being an air traffic controller is one of the most stressful jobs in all the land. To get an idea of how many flights are in the air at any given time, check out the NATCA website for real time flight info. I've had the opportunity to visit an air traffic control facility and can tell you that I was truly amazed, impressed, and frankly a little frightened at how many flights are in the air at any given time. It is the most complicated puzzle you could imagine -- with thousands of moving parts, changing conditions -- and real lives at risk. These men and women deserve enormous credit for keeping our skies safe.
So, imagine my horror - as a frequent flier - when they began to complain louder and more frequently about the unpleasant and often dangerous policies put in place during the Bush administration. The problems go back decades, but have been exacerbated and even accelerated under the current administration. The controllers are seeing forced mandatory overtime, decreased pay, less training, fewer vacation/personal days, and a national radar system filled with antiquated equipment. The low morale has caused many experienced controllers to retire as soon as they become eligible. In fact, since 2006, more than 20% of the workforce has quit or retired, largely due to the increasingly unsatisfactory working conditions. Many veteran controllers (hired in 1981 during the Reagan administration) left at their earliest possible retirement dates and attrition rates continue to beat all previous projections.
As if losing 20% of a veteran force weren't scary enough, the FAA - under the Bush administration and now former FAA Administrator Marion Blakely - began privatizing the training of controllers. In the process they lowered applicant standards, provide less training, and offer lower pay with fewer benefits to the freshest faces at America's radar screens.
And while America's air traffic controllers oversee more than half of all air traffic worldwide, the equipment they use is already out-of-date, often faulty, and well on its way to becoming obsolete. Now former FAA administrator Marion Blakely proposed a new system, dubbed "NextGen", that is supposed to solve all our air traffic woes and be in place in the year 2020. Unfortunately, the FAA has taken exactly ZERO input from our air traffic controllers on the proposed new system. Would you build a system for removing gall bladders or repairing a heart and not include input from surgeons or medical personnel? The very people who have the knowledge and know-how to help successfully create the new system have been completely frozen out of the process. Many see this as another way to demoralize the work force and as yet another union busting tool from the anti-union and anti-worker Bush administration. The FAA has even gone out of its way to lend the appearance of controllers being involved in the process, but NATCA has not been invited to participate whatsoever. Complicating matters even more, the FAA hasn't even explained what Next Gen really is and how it would fix the system. As one NATCA representative put it -- "Next Gen is widely acclaimed and rarely explained." Never mind the fact that a plan to have it in place around 2020 is too little too late.
Aside from the ancient radar equipment, the FAA has set-out to cut corners at every opportunity. In August of 2007 there was a radar and radio outage in Memphis, TN, which caused hundreds of flights to be canceled or delayed. Unfortunately for travelers that day, the radar and radio phone lines went out. In a normal situation, the back-up lines would have been used. But, in a cost-cutting effort, the FAA did not install the necessary back-up lines and when the main line went out, Memphis was shut down. In a pinch, air traffic controllers resorted to using their own personal cell phones to navigate traffic until the system was back online, but the entire incident could have been avoided by installing the recommended back-up equipment. Bringing down expenses is one thing, knowingly endangering thousands in the name of saving a few bucks is entirely another.
The problems outlined here are only the tip of the iceberg. They demand serious and immediate consideration from the incoming Obama administration and should be a top priority for Transportation Secretary nominee Ray LaHood. Based on my conversations with NATCA representatives, they are hopeful Ray LaHood and the as-yet-named incoming FAA Administrator will address these issues head-on and give them the priority they deserve -- the priority we all deserve as members of the flying public.
While I'm no expert on the FAA or air traffic control systems, I've learned enough in recent years to understand we have a genuine crisis brewing....one that will end tragically if we don't get out ahead of these issues.
NATCA is eager to help us - the netroots and the traveling public at-large - understand the critical issues we face in the immediate future. Pat Forrey, the President of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association has graciously agreed to be with us "live" this morning to answer your questions and will be available in the comments section below.
Welcome, Mr. Forrey and our air traffic control brethren -- you are cleared for questions. I'll start with the first question --- what can we do to help?