Six Years After PATCO's Crash, Fired Air Controller John Thornton Helps a New Union Get Off the Ground

updated 09/14/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/14/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Even now John Thornton can hardly believe what happened on Aug. 5, 1981. That was the day President Reagan fired the first group of 11,300 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) who had gone on strike illegally, two days earlier, to protest understating and demand increased pay. "We didn't believe they could work the system without us," says Thornton, 42, who had put in eight years as a controller at Washington's National Airport.

But the government really meant to get tough. Four months after the strike, Thornton and two other Washington-area PATCO leaders were jailed for 10 days. President Reagan steadfastly refused to rehire the strikers and instructed the Federal Aviation Administration to begin rebuilding the federal air-control staff from a core of 5,000 nonstriking controllers, supplemented by supervisors and military personnel.

What the FAA did not do, PATCO's replacement controllers now claim, was improve the working conditions that led to the strike. Six years after the PATCO debacle, air traffic controllers are once again charging under-staffing and overwork—and talking union. Last June, 7,494 of the 12,800 eligible controllers voted in favor of the newly created National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). It was an extraordinary turnout for a federal labor election, and it was telling evidence—at a time of growing concern about air safety—that conditions in the nation's control centers aren't getting any better and may be getting worse.

Certainly the numbers show cause for concern. There are some 2,600 fewer air-traffic controllers now than in 1981, despite a 25 percent increase in air traffic. Last year 840 near misses were reported in U.S. airspace (compared to 311 in 1982), and that number has exceeded 600 so far this year.

John Thornton has not worked as an air controller since the 1981 strike. He sold life insurance briefly and then became a professional union organizer. In 1983 he says he began getting calls from a new generation of frustrated controllers. Last year he persuaded the National Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association, an AFL-CIO affiliate, to let him go on the road as a national organizing coordinator. Yet he takes little credit for NATCA's strong showing in the June election. "I'd like to say it was smart organizing on my part, but it may just have been that we were the only remedy available," he says.

Crisscrossing the country to drum up support for the new union, Thornton heard a familiar litany of complaints about long hours, outdated equipment and insensitive managers, leading to family stress, illness and burnout. At the busiest facilities, says Thornton, controllers often work grueling six-day weeks, eight hours a day, under the same kind of intense pressure experienced by "a doctor in an operating room." The system is so shorthanded, he says, that controllers accumulate 800,000 to 900,000 hours of overtime annually.

"We have facilities—Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, Minneapolis, among others—where we still have staffing problems," concedes FAA spokesman John Leyden. "We compensate by using supervisors and higher than normal overtime." But Leyden insists that safety is not compromised and points out that 93 percent of reported near misses involve planes not flying under the direction of FAA air controllers. "To say that [near-miss reports] represents an air control system gone to hell just isn't right," he says.

Many controllers disagree. "We tell them things are dangerous, and they just laugh it off," counters Gary Molen, a Salt Lake City controller. "We are unable as a group to communicate with management." NATCA supporters say the autocratic, intransigent FAA bureaucracy, as well as the working conditions, are responsible for the success of the union drive.

Yet NATCA is determined not to repeat the mistakes of PATCO. It has already pledged never to strike or to engage in work slowdowns. Not wishing to appear confrontational, the new union may also choose to dissociate itself from Thornton and his PATCO past. He says he harbors no fantasies of revenge for his own truncated career as a controller. "I didn't go on strike in 1981 to tear down the system but to better it," he insists. "NATCA is just a continuation of that. The President made a commitment in 1981 to rebuild the system, and that's a commitment he didn't keep."

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