Air Traffic Control Screwups

The Washington Post today describes the latest near-miss disaster at National Airport, apparently the result of screw-ups by our government-run air traffic control (ATC) system. The Post notes that this near-accident is one of many troubling incidents in recent years:

…the near-collision was another among several thousand recorded errors by air traffic controllers nationwide in recent years. National has been the site of some of the most notable incidents, including one revealed last year in which the lone controller supervisor on duty was asleep and didn’t respond when regional controllers sought to hand off planes to National for the final approach.

News of the sleeping controller at National last year led to the revelation that controllers on overnight shifts at several other airports were napping on the job.

Is our ATC system is so troubled because it is

  • a government bureaucracy,
  • a monopoly that doesn’t face competitive pressures to improve quality, or
  • a union-dominated organization?

I don’t know the answer; maybe it’s all three. But news stories like the one today usually don’t mention the role of the unions, and newspaper readers may just conclude that the fault is simply one of a bumbling Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) bureaucracy.

However, I coincidentally received a letter in the mail today from an anonymous FAA official who points to some of the problems caused by the militant National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). He or she says that the “NATCA union holds the FAA management hostage and little is done to correct the problems … The NATCA union is too powerful and management is too intimidated to do their jobs.”

The letter writer may or may not have all his or her facts straight–the letter is here [PDF] so you can judge for yourself. However, I do think that the media could do a better job probing the role of unionization in the FAA’s substandard performance. People remember Ronald Reagan’s battle with the air traffic controllers, but that was just a blip in a much longer story. Unions have been creating problems for the ATC system since the 1960s, as I mention in this essay.