Take a moment to click on and view the video below. You will find it absolutely astounding:
If you look closely, you will see thousands of individual moving dots, each one representing an individual airplane identified by air traffic control radar. You will also see that as the earth rotates, certain areas are in daylight while others are in nighttime. During daylight the air traffic increases exponentially, and though Europe has high air traffic density during its daylight hours, no other place on Earth has more air traffic than over the daytime USA.
Now consider this: The video is of a single 24 hour period on Earth. Tens of thousand of flights are clearly visible, and yet not one of them crashed into another. Not one!
How can that possibly be with the incredible density of traffic seen on this video?
The answer is air traffic controllers, whose jobs it is to guide these airplanes safely and efficiently through the available airspace. Air traffic controllers do this day in and day out, often in extreme conditions where it seems there are just too many airplanes present for the airspace available to put them in. Nevertheless, day after day air traffic controllers juggle all of these flights, many of which have hundreds of passengers sitting on them, mixing large airplanes with small ones, fast airplanes with slower ones and crisscrossing airplanes heading right at each other at a blistering closing speed of 1000 miles per hour!
They do this hour after hour and day after day. Yet, not one of those flights gets lost, or forgotten, or crushed against the body of another airplane in flight. How is this possible?
It’s because air traffic controllers are highly intelligent, highly trained, highly motivated and highly dedicated to quality service in the performance of their jobs. They make hundreds to thousands of instantaneous decisions in 3 dimensional space every day, each of which could result in a midair collision or crash if it is the wrong decision.
If you think that kind of pressure is stressful, you’re absolutely correct. Air traffic controllers have a higher incidence of high blood pressure, divorce, and other issues than the average population. They can suffer from sleep disorders because of their work schedules which must accommodate a 24/7/365 demand for services. They sometimes cannot reach retirement age because of disqualifying medical conditions causes by the constant high stress of their jobs over time.
In the USA, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employs most air traffic controllers. Because of the negative effects of the high stress of the job, federal law was changed in the mid 1970’s to allow air traffic controllers to retire at age 50 with 20 years of service. Federal law also mandated that controllers cannot be hired past their 31st birthdays, nor are they permitted to work air traffic past their 56th birthdays.
These federal law changes were achieved through the efforts of the air traffic controllers’ federal union of the time, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). However, in a struggle with the FAA in August 1981, PATCO conducted a strike, which is prohibited for federal employees under US law. 11,500 striking controllers were fired, and PATCO subsequently disbanded as a result.
Fast forward to July 19, 1987: Though controllers had been working without representation for almost 6 years since the PATCO strike, a new air traffic controllers union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), was certified as the exclusive representative for the nations air traffic controllers after winning an election on June 11, 1987. Controllers had not had representation during the almost 6 years since the PATCO strike. It was a monumental achievement, especially considering that it was achieved while then-USA president Ronald Reagan, who fired the striking PATCO controllers in 1981, was still in office.
This week NATCA is meeting in Denver, Colorado for its 13th biannual convention, and concurrently is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its federal certification. Over 1300 air traffic controllers from all over the USA are present for the convention and the anniversary celebration.
During those 25 years, NATCA accomplished things that were once thought impossible: development of collaborative partnership processes with the FAA for solving problem, more effective equipment design because of controller involvement, the first-ever successful non-postal salary negotiation within government, controller involvement in all aspects of air traffic control oversight, etc..
Unfortunately, NATCA was also forced to endure the anti-labor efforts of the GW Bush administration, which immorally stripped NATCA of decent working conditions in 2006 in an effort to demoralize the federal workforce. However, NATCA was able to reverse this situation in 2009, and won back reasonable working conditions and collaboration under the Obama administration.
Next time you take a flight, or a family member flies, or you look up and see an airplane flying overhead, remember the unseen and unsung air traffic controllers that keep those airplanes (and loved ones) safe….and also remember the union that represents and protects those controllers (and through them, all of the flying public)….NATCA.
Happy 25th anniversary, NATCA! Enjoy your well-deserved celebration!!
(Ed. note: For those interested in historical trivia, although NATCA was certified on June 19, 1987, it was actually born on December 18, 1985 at the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association (MEBA) headquarters in Washington DC.
(On that day, newly-hired-by-MEBA ex-controller John Thornton met with a working controller who had previously sparred with then-FAA administrator Don Engen on the ABC Nightline Program on November 13, 1985. As a result of the show, Engen invited that controller to a meeting with him. After that meeting the controller met with Thornton. Late on the afternoon of December 18, 1985, the two of them settled on the name “NATCA” and adopted the now famous NATCA logo which the controller had previously designed.)