The FAA Higher Skill Set

One of the things that’s so frustrating about working as an air traffic controller for the FAA is the organization we work for.

The job itself can be very satisfying:  that is if you like the job and you’re any good at it.  Air traffic control can be demanding and includes a lot of responsibility as well as work autonomy; controllers work independently with only general supervision almost exclusively.

But a lot of those who don’t like doing air traffic control or weren’t good at it apply to become FAA managers.  It’s the Peter Principle at work.  And therein lies a large part of what ails the FAA.

There aren’t a lot of prerequisite skills in order to qualify to become and FAA manager; one simply has to apply and be accepted.  College degrees aren’t a requirement nor is any management training.

Since there aren’t really any prerequisite skills required, and a lot of the managers weren’t good controllers most FAA managers don’t get much respect from the controller workforce.  This frustrates many managers no end, because many of them take management positions because they want to get more respect; respect they couldn’t earn from their peers when they were controllers because they weren’t good at it.

So there are a lot of frustrated FAA managers, who are in a position to take that frustration out on controllers.

From September 3rd (Labor Day), 2006 until October 1st, 2009, controllers worked under imposed work rules, the most significant aspect of which was a freeze in veteran controllers’ pay as well a second lower/”B” pay scale for new controllers.

Meanwhile all other employees in the FAA, including managers, continued to receive pay raises and bonuses.

The FAA’s message to its controller workforce was loud and clear:  they believed controllers were overpaid and needed to be put in their place.  They were clearly second class citizens in the organization.

The FAA claimed the pay freezes and cuts for controllers were necessary to fund the FAA’s yet fully defined NextGen (technological upgrades to the air traffic system), but weren’t going to share any financial burden for the cost of that system.  That would apparently be solely the air traffic controllers’ responsibility; all other employees in the FAA would continue to receive raises.

FAA managers believe that they merit the extra pay because of all the responsibility they claim to have.  Additionally FAA management claims they’re “held to a higher standard”  and have a “higher skill set”.  Controllers in general believe that managers actually get paid more but have less responsibility; after all they’re not making minute to minute decisions to keep airplanes safely apart like controllers are.

Ultimately it was clear that the imposed work rules were all about power.  And the frustrated FAA managers used their new power under the imposed work rules to punish controllers as much as they could.

If I sound a bit bitter, I have to admit I am.  I have always taken my job seriously and have done the best I could at it, and I think I’m pretty good at what I do.  I used to be proud to say I worked for the FAA.

I am now in the waning years of my FAA career, approaching retirement eligibility, and my employer just spent the last three years showing how little it valued me and my fellow controllers as employees.  We finally got a contract on October 1st that has improved our working conditions and pay, but I’ll never be able to forget the treatment I got from the FAA under its imposed work rules for the last three years.

The incident with Northwest 188, the flight from San Diego that inadvertently overflew its destination airport (Minneapolis) in part because its flight crew lost radio contact with air traffic control (NORDO in the biz), was in the news again when the NTSB released its investigation docket to the public on December 17.

Air traffic controllers were faulted in the media for failing to alert the military to the problem with the flight.  I took issue in an earlier blog with the way those reports failed to differentiate between FAA air traffic managers and FAA air traffic controllers.

I read the NTSB’s Air Traffic Control Factual Report that was part of that docket and wasn’t surprised to see some noteworthy statements from those managers that are allegedly “held to a higher standard”.

It was really the failure of many FAA managers to follow proper procedure that led to the delays in notifying the Domestic Events Network (DEN ) who would notify the military of the NORDO flight.

So much for them earning all that extra money they’re paid…


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