Friday, December 30, 2005


“We have met the enemy...

…and he is us.”

Or so goes the famous line from the comic strip Pogo. There have been isolated moments over the past couple of years when Flight Service controllers must think they have stumbled into a circular firing squad. The most recent example involved the Yahoo newsgroup for members of the Flight Service (AFSS) Controllers union, NAATS (National Association of Air Traffic Specialists). First set up in 2002 (if we recall correctly), union members could subscribe to the group by sending an e-mail to the moderator/owner who would confirm their membership status and let them in.

The moderator for the newsgroup is one Dan Hart. He set up the newsgroup of his own initiative. It is not adjunct to the union, nor is it connected in any way with any of its officers (some of them were subscribers to the newsgroup just as any union member could be). It was an excellent resource, acting as a clearinghouse for ideas, calls to action, and the exchange of information during the contract negotiation and contracting out (A-76) process. Only dues-paying members were allowed to subscribe since 1) the intent was to improve communication within the union membership, and 2) the messages could contain statements and information that may have proven useful to FAA management. We always found this ‘security’ angle dubious and it is of little import now. But it was quite reasonable under the circumstances to limit the subscription to those who were paying for every controller’s future, dues paying member or not, even those who refused to lift a finger, write a letter to Congress, or send a dime to help out in the effort (and there were more than a few).

Times, however, have changed. NAATS failed to win a single round when it counted. The organization is now recognized as a bargaining unit only in the state of Alaska, where AFSS controllers are still FAA employees. In the other 49 states, NAATS is in limbo. They have petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for ‘successorship’ recognition as the sole representative of the controllers who now work for Lockheed Martin (while there is substantial legal precedence for this, we’re not going to present the supporting arguments here). But for now it means that NAATS can only have members and collect dues via payroll deduction from the controllers in Alaska. For those in the ‘lower 49’ who want to continue funding NAATS, a payment method has been set up to collect the ‘dues’, but since this amounts to more of a contribution to a cause rather than actual membership, response has been meager to say the least.

There are many possible reasons for this lack of enthusiasm among the (now) Lockheed controllers for paying ‘dues’ to a union that can’t actually represent them; dissatisfaction with NAATS performance in dealing with the FAA’s A-76 process or contract negotiations, the failure to get Congressional action on same, mismanagement on the part of the Board of Directors, an on-going rewrite of the NAATS constitution, just to name a few. We do not argue the validity of these or any other reasons, but we must acknowledge that they do indeed exist and that some have more than just a little merit.

So…what happens to that most useful tool, the newsgroup? Specifically, how should Mr. Hart respond to those former members of NAATS who were faithfully, but are no longer, paying dues to an organization that has no legal standing to represent them?

There are two modes of thought. One is to continue allowing subscriptions only to those who pay union dues (or the equivalent) to NAATS. The other is to keep the newsgroup open to all interested parties who have participated up to this point.

Mr. Hart has taken the former option, as is his right. We find this an unfortunate, short-sighted, and very Scrooge-like choice. It is bad enough that the FAA has treated Flight Service controllers with such incredible disrespect. Must Mr. Hart as well? Apparently so. The given reason for his action is that only dues-paying members should have access to the information that is conveyed through the newsgroup. But that information is no longer limited to union business; a majority of messages now involve information about changes made by Lockheed Martin, possible changes in their status vis-à-vis the FAA, or other remedies that will help them attain some relief for the tremendous losses they have suffered this year. Why would Mr. Hart take from controllers the best existing forum from which to learn their options or the best actions to take?

The decision disserves NAATS as well, as those willing to continue the fight will be split, marginalized, and far less effective. Before the Lockheed take-over of October 4th, the union had a representative in each facility who could act as an ‘information conduit’ up and down the line. Each facility had a bulletin board on which the latest news could be posted. Those are now gone, and any future success depends on using the best possible, most open communication vehicle. Presently, the only such vehicle is Mr. Hart’s newsgroup. Many controllers now denied access to the newsgroup were among the most active during the past two years in trying to forestall the contracting-out of Flight Service. NAATS will no longer have their initiative and ideas. If anyone wanted to see a microcosm of the thinking that led to NAATS’ failures, this would be one.

In a way this is a tempest in a teapot since there is a very simple solution, but we wanted to illustrate the act of cutting ones nose off to spite ones face. We hope that Mr. Hart will see the light and reverse his ill-considered action.

As for the simple solution, someone, anyone, should set up an alternative newsgroup open to all current and former Flight Service Controllers who were affected by the Lockheed contract. Such a thing is very easy to do, and we very much hope to see it done. There is little doubt which newsgroup would best serve those that NAATS sought to represent.

Sunday, December 11, 2005


Mr. Carr Gets a Blog.

…late to the game, but finally here nonetheless.

Yes, yes, we know. When it comes to the ongoing Flight Service story there are many issues of greater interest than the NATCA (National Air Traffic Controllers Association) negotiations. We ourselves are wondering how far into this swamp we should meander before realizing we have gone too far afield.

But there’s something compelling about watching others tumble down the same slope on which you just battered yourself, especially when said tumbler makes a remark on the spill you just took.

A comment to our last post by ‘RK RDU formerly MIV’ has a question for NATCA President John Carr; what does he mean in his blog post of 12/6 (“I’ll be home for Christmas”) when he mentions “the Freddie [sic] Kruger of air traffic services, the Flight Service Stations?” You can read the whole entry here.

One could guess that Mr. Carr’s Kruger comment is an attempt to slam the FAA, but there’s no contextual assurance. It isn’t until the latter half of the next paragraph it becomes clear that his sympathies lay with those who used to be his controlling brethren, the Flight Service specialists. Mr. Carr is making a pop cultural reference the famous Nightmare on Elm Street movies; the FAA is the villainous slasher, while Flight Service was the innocent that was slaughtered.

Two things come to mind. First, Mr. Carr continues his crocodile tears over what happened to Flight Service. We can’t help but re-define the famous historical parallel…’they came for Flight Service but I did nothing because I wasn’t Flight Service.’ A ‘firewall’ for NATCA was available during that A-76 'study', but they chose to ignore it. Mr. Carr doesn’t seem to have a very far or wide tactical vision.

The second thing is Mr. Carr’s clumsy attempt at communication. The Freddy Kruger analogy is a botched play that requires further elaboration to become clear. That clarity comes rather late in the semantic stumble that is his post. His membership should hope he does better when it counts.

The Nightmare On Elm Street analogy is an interestingly apt one. In the movies, Freddy Kruger attacked his victims in their dreams, thus he was impervious to real-life tactics to defeat him. The solution was cerebral trickery to bring him into the real world. As we mentioned in ‘The Archaic Playbook’ (12/1), the old expectations in Federal labor relations no longer apply. Mr. Carr’s verbiage indicates that he is operating in a dream world of the past. If he stays there, his Krugerish FAA will likely cut him to ribbons.

Friday, December 02, 2005



Time out for a bit to talk about this blog…

A couple e-mails arrived recently along the ‘who are you’ line of questioning. One hit our box this morning and we couldn’t have been more pleased; she has our admiration for being probably the most active among Flight Service controllers in seeking legislative relief from her Senators, and continues to do so, tirelessly, it seems. We wish her every success, both with the Senate and in her career.

There have also been a couple e-mails containing some ‘over-the-transom’ information which we haven’t discussed yet, but will soon.

We thought we should take a moment and explain why we haven’t responded to those who have been kind enough to share their thoughts and insights.

When this blog started on July 18th it was a very turbulent time. The contract had been awarded, legislative efforts were stalled, union strategy was at times unclear and coming under sharp criticism, and political affiliations were being forced to the surface, causing divisiveness among the controllers. Yet the word was not getting out to the flying public; our story was not being told. Letters and calls to Congress were proving almost valueless. In an effort that indeed can be described as a long-shot, we thought there might be another way to make a difference. You are reading the result.

The first editorial decision was that this should be an anonymous blog. This is not about us, and we’ll do nothing intended to draw attention to ourselves. We wanted the thoughts expressed taken at face value without consideration of the source or other ad-homonym dismissals.

But as soon to be minted at-will employees, we were also (and still are) paranoid. Should we say something that offends our employer, we can be fired on the spot, theoretically at least. Pardon us if we’d rather not take the chance. Which is why we have not answered e-mail. While pretty good, we’re not the most tech-savvy bulb in the chandelier, and we’d view an e-mail trace as a very bad thing. We don’t even know if that’s possible, but uninformed risk is also bad thing…

By all appearances and results we were unsuccessful in helping to turn the tide of Flight Service fortunes. For one, we started way too late in the game. But this has an element of fun and have chosen to keep going. E-mail like this mornings help the effort.

So, as the old saw goes, keep those cards and letters coming. We do read them and apologize for our lack of response. We beg your forgiveness and understanding.

Thursday, December 01, 2005


The Archaic Playbook.

As we were writing the previous post, specifically those parts dealing with contracting out of services, we couldn’t help but recall that it is a negotiating year for the air traffic specialists represented by NATCA (National Air Traffic Controllers Association). The contract is up and the battle has been joined. From our view, NATCA has not made an auspicious beginning.

Take first of all, the plea for more staffing. NATCA President Mr. Carr complains about how the controllers he represents are overworked and facilities understaffed. Yet cause and effect have not been demonstrated by Mr. Carr.

Some background; whenever two controlled aircraft come closer together than allowed by the rules, it’s called an ‘operational error’, or OE. Every day, a report is issued on the previous day’s errors. The staffing patterns indicate that numbers are not a common factor. Many OEs occur in situations where half or more of the controllers are on break.

To be sure, this ‘on break’ ratio is not universal when OEs occur, but neither can it be shown that errors are more likely when staffing is below the level Mr. Carr seems to desire. Yes, the FAA faces a future controller shortage for which they have not adequately planned (as recognized by the GAO and IG), but Mr. Carr overstates his case for the present.

To compound his error, Mr. Carr did little or nothing when he could have bolstered his numbers during the recent contracting out of Flight Service. There were, and still are, hundreds of controllers in that service that can step into facility training right now, saving hundreds of hours of early off-the-street training. But Mr. Carr rebuffed this source of manpower just as the FAA continues to do.

Secondly, Mr. Carr presents a demeanor that indicates he believes he is facing the type of labor-management dispute that has been experienced in the past. That is a grave error. Unlike the ‘roll over and play dead’ style of past administrators like Jane Garvey, today’s FAA will fight like a pit bull to bring the NATCA contract to heel. New tools are available to them; Congress released the FAA from some requirements of Title V that govern labor relations.

Yes, NATCA can pitch advertisments about how they are responsible for keeping aircraft from banging together. But the public is going to be a tough sell on someone making $150,000 to $200,000 a year, working 40 hours a week, maybe only half that time actually controlling traffic, with early retirement (including medical benefits) to boot. In the real aviation world (and elsewhere), wages, workforces, benefits, and retirements are being reduced.

Third, Mr. Carr admits no error or fault on the part of the controllers. Publicly, the FAA has at least given lip service to historical mistakes and mismanagement. Not so Mr. Carr. New York TRACON (known as N90) is a cesspool of abuse and featherbedding. It is a national embarrassment. Mr. Carr won’t declare such situations as unacceptable, even in the mildest of terms; in fact, he defends N90s record, despite the obvious. If there were any doubt that as the union president, his word cannot be taken seriously, those doubts have now vanished.

Like aircraft mechanics and pilots before them, Mr. Carr and the controllers he represents have come to a fork in the road. They can admit that the FAA can no longer afford them as is and get the best reasonable offer, or they can fight the old fashioned way and go down in flames.

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