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THE UNFRIENDLY SKIES OF GEORGE W. BUSH


It’s not easy for air traffic controllers with a Republican in the White House. First, it was Ronald W. Reagan firing 11,000 of them in 1981 for striking to try to better their onerous working conditions. Now, it’s George W. Bush making the conditions even worse.

The controllers aren’t the only ones involved. Millions of airline passengers and employees and many fliers who pilot their own aircraft face serious threats to their safety because of what’s being done by the controllers’ bosses — Bush appointees who run the Federal Aviation Administration.

 

FAA policies have kept many air traffic control towers badly understaffed, subjecting the clearly demoralized men and women who operate them to long, fatiguing work shifts with little time to rest.  Listen, for instance, to what one veteran controller says of the work schedules  (anonymously, for fear of employer retaliation):

 

“Hundreds, if not thousands of air traffic controllers work a day shift — typically from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. — then report back to work that night, eight or nine hours later… On a good evening, I get four hours sleep. A typical evening I get 2 1/2. That’s right,

 

2 1/2 hours of sleep for an already sleep-deprived mind and body that has been going all week. Then it’s in the shower, a snack, pack up and drive back to work to separate airplanes from the ground and from each other.”

 

Under such circumstances, the potential for serious accidents is obvious. Consider the crash of a Conair jet on takeoff from the Lexington, Ky., airport last August that killed all 49 passengers and crew members. Only one controller was on duty, although staffing requirements called for two, and the lone controller had had only nine hours between shifts – and only two hours sleep.

 

The controllers have tried through their union to improve the situation. But the FAA, as unabashedly anti-labor as all other federal agencies under Bush, rejected union demands for improvements during negotiations for a new contract last year. The agency then unilaterally imposed new work rules that made the situation even worse.

 

Previously, controllers were guaranteed rest breaks after every two hours of their eye-straining high-anxiety work of following aircraft paths across radar screens. But no more. And  they can now be forced to work overtime, however fatigued or stressed they may be. Nor are controllers any longer guaranteed two consecutive weeks of vacation.

 

Newly-hired controllers will be paid 30 percent less than those now on the job, creating a two-tier system that’s bound to cause friction among the controllers and give the FAA a great incentive to force veteran controllers out in favor of cheaper newcomers.  And whether they be long-time or recently-hired employees, the FAA is aiming to increase their workloads by an average of 10 percent each over the next few years.

 

That’s not all, either. The agency imposed a dress code on controllers. No jeans, no T-shirts, no sneakers or sandals. The FAA said it wanted to make certain that controllers’ attire would not “erode public confidence” in them, although most work in windowless rooms, unseen by the public.

 

Not surprisingly, the controllers’ morale appears to be near rock-bottom. Recent FAA surveys indicate that two-thirds of them are unhappy with how the agency is managed. What’s more, they’ve filed more than 280.000 formal grievances charging the FAA with violating their union rights.

 

The number of controllers, about 15,000 when President Bush took office, has been steadily declining at the same time that air traffic has been steadily increasing.  In the past three years alone, the controllers’ ranks have shrunk by 1,100. The union says that has caused “massive fatigue” among the remaining controllers who’ve had to take on extra workloads, including 10-hour shifts and six-day work weeks. Some control towers have had to be shut down for hours at a time for lack of controllers.

 

Nearly 70 percent of the current controllers are expected to retire over the next decade, and an undetermined but significant number expected to resign because of the working conditions imposed by George Bush’s FAA – conditions that threaten the safety of millions.

 

But give Bush his due. He’s actually managed to outdo Ronald Reagan, long proclaimed the greatest of all union-busters.

 

 

Copyright (c) 2007 Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based journalist who has covered labor and political issues for more than four decades. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.

 

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