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The PATCO echo

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On the evening of March 23 the air-traffic control tower at Reagan National Airport went dead. Two commercial airliners approaching Reagan National were unable to reach anyone inside the control tower and landed without its help. When a third commercial airliner approaching Reagan National was informed about the control-tower silence (by a controller 38 miles to the west in rural Virginia), the pilot sounded dumbstruck. "Is there a reason it's not manned?" he asked. "Well, I'm going to take a guess and say that the controller got locked out," the distant controller answered. "I've heard of this happening before."

The controller was referring to an incident at Reagan National about a year before. An air-traffic controller had stepped out of the airport's control tower for what, one presumes, was supposed to be a brief moment, but he (or she) left his (or her) security swipe card behind. This time, the explanation was, if anything, more embarrassing: The air-traffic controller on duty had fallen asleep. What the two incidents had in common was that only one person was manning the tower. That turns out to be neither a violation of Federal Aviation Administration regulations nor the consequence of anybody who works at Reagan National coming down unexpectedly with the flu. The midnight-to-6 a.m. shift there was, by design, a one-person operation. (It isn't anymore.)

The empty-tower incident came just a month after I reported in this column that air-traffic controllers' error rate last year increased nationwide by nearly 100 percent. Much of this may (or may not) be attributable to a new no-fault system for self-reported errors — the FAA's recordkeeping makes it impossible to know how heavily to weigh this consideration — but the absolute riskiest errors, which were unaffected by the self-reporting change, increased by 19 percent.

What on earth is plaguing the nation's air-traffic control towers? The ghost of Ronald Reagan.

Long before our country's 40th president was beatified by the chiseling of his name onto Washington National Airport (which, the late Sen. Pat Moynihan, D-N.Y., pointed out at the time, was already named after our country's first president), Ronald Reagan was better-known within aviation circles as the guy who busted the air-traffic controllers' union for going on strike.

The decertification of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization is now remembered as an epochal event in the late-20th-century decline of the labor movement, but it had a very specific and largely unremarked effect on the business of air-traffic control. Firing all 11,345 air-traffic controllers who refused President Reagan's order to get back to work — which turned out to be all but 500 of them — required the Reagan administration to hire an entirely new air-traffic control workforce. Nearly 9,000 new controllers were hired in 1982 and 1983 alone. Now it's 30 years later, and those onetime scabs are all hitting the mandatory retirement age of 56 (air-traffic control is a young person's game) at pretty much the same time. Since it typically takes three to five years to get a new hire up to speed, the turnover has been putting a serious strain on the workforce.

The already-accelerating attrition rate worsened during the aughts as President Bush's Federal Aviation Administration pushed to privatize air-traffic control and tried to bust PATCO's successor union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. The Bushies didn't get very far, but they did manage to impose restrictive work and pay rules that prompted even more controllers to quit or take early retirement. In a 2007 letter to then-FAA chief Marion Blakey, the National Transportation Safety Board said it had found "clear and compelling evidence that controllers are sometimes operating in a state of fatigue because of their work schedules" and blamed the death of 49 people in a 2006 crash on the fact that an air-traffic controller in Lexington, Ky., had slept only two hours during the previous 24. Last week's drowsy air-traffic controller at Reagan National was reportedly working his fourth consecutive night shift.

The Obama administration has improved labor relations with NATCA and ramped up hiring, but "this is a long term issue," says NATCA spokesman Doug Church. "It didn't get solved in '09. It isn't solved now." Retirements by controllers hired in the early 1980s peaked in 2007, and the volume of air traffic itself peaked in 2000. But between 2010 and 2019 an additional 5,000 air-traffic controllers are projected to retire while air-traffic volume, which bottomed out in 2010, is expected to increase. Even after Reagan National added a second air-traffic controller to the midnight shift (Reno-Tahoe did, too) there remain 29 air-traffic towers around the country with just one.

You might ask: If rapid turnover of air-traffic controllers puts such a godawful strain on the system, why didn't the airline accident rate go up in the years immediately following the PATCO firings, when the government relied on a ragtag group of managers, former military controllers, and others to keep planes in the sky? It's a fair question. The severe recession of 1982-83 probably helped keep a lid on the volume of air traffic. There's no question that the system was strained through the 1980s. One 1988 GAO report complained of staffing shortfalls and noted with chagrin that 42 percent of the lowest-scoring graduates of the FAA's training academy — air controllers who had botched their training — were assigned to the nation's busiest airports. Maybe we just got lucky.

Maybe we'll get lucky again. And maybe we won't.

Timothy Noah is a senior writer at Slate.

This article, The PATCO Echo, first appeared in Slate.