Jim Paulei of PATCO discusses the air traffic controller's strike and describes a day on the job
BROADCAST: Oct. 5, 1981 | DURATION: 00:49:58
Mr. Paulei talks with Studs about the air traffic controllers strike in 1980 and subsequent firing of over 1000 air traffic controllers. They discuss what a normal shift as an air traffic controller consists of, and the unions reasons for the strike in 1980.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel In talking to people for my book "Working" I neglected to interview one kind of professional, the air traffic controller. Air traffic controllers are in the news these days mostly in a negative way. They're members of Patco over there, that's a word that's now a trigger word. And I thought, perhaps we'd talk to an air traffic controller who has been locked out, as you well know, an air traffic controller who has been fired, and to have him describe his day. What is the nature of the work, the history of the situation that led up to a strike and the lockout and the firing. The name is Jim Paulei. Jim's been an air traffic controller for 21 years. He's 40 years old, he was 19 when he was chartered, an Air Force guy, a young grandfather. But we'll talk primarily about his work. What's it like. And all the aspects that go along with it, and as well as what led to the situation today of which most of us know one part. I know as we begin talking, Jim, I notice that you've been drinking you so far, what, two, three cups of black coffee. Is it always black coffee?
Jim Paulei Always black. I drink about 10 to 20, 30 cups of coffee a day. There's always a coffee pot on when I'm at home and at work whenever there's an opportunity I'll go out and have one or two cups on a break.
Studs Terkel What about your colleagues?
Jim Paulei Most of us drink black coffee. Some put some cream in it, and there's a few who have been on doctor's advice now that they no longer drink coffee, but--
Studs Terkel But why do you drink that many a day?
Jim Paulei I don't know. I just keep the energy levels up. The adrenaline pumping. The caffeine gives a stimulus that keeps you up a little bit more than other things do.
Studs Terkel We'll come to the air traffic controller and you say you gotta keep the energy up, so naturally we'll come to hours, we'll come to circumstances, we'll come to the implications of your work. Suppose you begin. Your life as an air traffic controller, why don't you start? Start, what's your day like? When you were working. You work at O'Hare.
Jim Paulei No, I work at the Chicago Air Route Air Traffic Control Center, which controls Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, parts of Minnesota, Iowa, parts of Indiana. So we control a rather large area. Let's start out with a workweek rather than a workday to start out with. We work shift work. Now, that's not unusual for any working man, but our shift work is a little different than most in that the normal air traffic control schedule throughout the country and we'll disregard Chicago because we have our own work schedule in Chicago, but the normal schedule is to work four to midnight, then we'll start it out on Sunday. We go to work four to midnight on Sunday.
Studs Terkel How many hours a week?
Jim Paulei Forty hours, plus overtime.
Jim Paulei So on Sunday we work four to 12, on Monday we'll work three to 11, on Tuesday eight to four, on Wednesday seven to three, and then back Wednesday night at 11 o'clock to work until 7:00 o'clock in the morning, and then whatever they happen to need you for on overtime on Friday.
Studs Terkel Suppose I say to you, I'll be the devil's advocate.
Jim Paulei Okay.
Studs Terkel Forty hour week. That's a normal workweek. What's your beef? Because one of the things during this tra--you raise the question of a shorter work week.
Jim Paulei Well, we don't feel that working the 40-hour work week we have enough time away from the job. If you look at the schedule I just described, where you work three to 11, you have an eight-hour turnaround back to us eight to four shift, the three to 11 shift is probably the busiest shift that you have to work. You leave work at 11:00 o'clock at night, probably anywhere from 15 minutes to a half hour drive home, sit down and you can't go to sleep right away because the tensions have built up through the shifts so you're probably up until one o'clock in the morning.
Studs Terkel Now, we know that many working people have tensions. The truck driver certainly does. Well, for that matter, the typist does. What is it about the tensions? Of course, the word tension, tensions of an air traffic controller?
Jim Paulei It's the unrelieved tensions. You have no time to let the tension drain away, particularly when you're at work. Let's go with the three to 11 shift immediately. Well, my wife used to drive me to work. Let's put it that way. On the way to work we would be having a conversation, a drive to work for me at this time was about 15 minutes. When we'd leave the house and we would be talking about a subject, we'd be--she'd be asking me questions, and whenever, if she wanted anything really decided quickly, that's when she would ask me, about halfway to work, because as we drove to work the answers became very short, very abrupt, from conversational tones to, "What, do you think we should send our kids to a private school?" Anything. We never did that, that wasn't a topic of discussion, but instead of saying, "Well, I don't know," and weighing the pros and cons, as we got closer to work it was just "Yes. No."
Studs Terkel Why? Why did you?
Jim Paulei You're gearing yourself up for the job. And it's an unconscious thing. I didn't even realize that I did it until she brought it out to me. She said whenever she wanted me to make a decision about something, she'd drive me to work, because as we went to work it was an instantaneous decision. There was no, "Well, this check about this and this check about that."
Studs Terkel Well, what is it about your job that makes it uniquely tense?
Jim Paulei It's the instantaneous decisions that have to be right. You can never be wrong, because when you're wrong you're going to kill somebody. There's a very high probability. The area that I work in particularly, the aircraft are moving at 600 miles an hour, and if they're coming together that's a closure rate of twelve hundred miles an hour. So that means they're going to cover 10 miles in less than a minute. You have to make a decision. You have to make it right. You don't have time to do it a second time. It's got to be right the first time. It's kind of like playing master chess game where you only have one second to make each move, and the guy you're playing against can take an hour to decide his move. But you have to make your decision instantly every time he does something.
Studs Terkel So, the 40 hours of an air traffic controller can't be compared to 40 hours of a bank teller, let's say, because something else is involved, there are lives of other people as well as the tempo, as well the time for making a decision.
Jim Paulei Also, you can't plan your work. You can't say, "Well, this first hour I go to work I'm going to build into things slowly and I'm only going to work 10 airplanes," or "I'm only going--as a [fair?] my father was a United Rubber worker. He could go to work and say, I don't know what he actually did, but he could say, "Well, first hour I'm going to build ten towers and ten tires, and in the second hour I'll build 12 and four, so when I'm done I'll do my average job with 15 tires an hour or whatever it was," you know, and build up and then as he got going and build up into the job he could build up his production so that he averaged the right number of tires per hour. With a controller, you go in and you take what's there, you have no control over what's coming. It's either there or it's not.
Studs Terkel So as soon as you sit down--can you describe it, what you do and as the planes--you--a plane is coming and it has let's say 100 people on it, or any airline you know, coming in or whether it's commercial or a private airline, there are some, a number of human beings. A good number of human beings are in that thing coming in at what pace?
Jim Paulei They're coming in at 600 miles an hour.
Studs Terkel And you're seeing something on a screen.
Jim Paulei I see a little blip of light. With the computer technology we have and the computer scopes that we're using, you see a picture of a little target on a scope, it's about a quarter of an inch long and oh, maybe 30 second of an inch wide, and that represents an airplane. And we have a little line drawn of that with a little square box above it that tells us the airplane's name, his altitude. Either that he's at or he's requesting, if he's climbing or descending, it tells us his actual altitude as he climbs or descends to the assigned altitude, computer identification number and the speed across the ground he's actually making. To build what a controller does, I'll give you a simile that I think everyone can understand. Let's take a straight road out in front of your house, for example. Let's make it a four-lane highway to make it a little easier to look at. You have cars going each direction on that road. But you're in charge of all those cars for a particular section of that road. And there are all kinds of different cars and each one must maintain optimum efficiency at all times, which means that a--let's take a Ford Pinto can do 30 miles an hour optimum and you have a Mercedes- Benz out there that runs optimum at 70 miles an hour. Well, all the time you've got to maintain five car lengths between every car, and every car drives in the right-hand lane. So when you have a faster car overtaking, you slide him over into the left lane, let him go by and you're keeping them separated. And when he gets five car lengths in front you bring him back over to the right lane, and you have cars going in both directions. That doesn't sound too difficult, but now let's make a T intersection in that road. Now, the cars coming to the road on the T have to enter the road, they can't stop. There's no stop sign there. They have to keep moving. So you have to plan in advance when a car is coming up to that T, so that he can get into the flow of traffic either by crossing the one lane and making a left turn or by turning in the right lane, but you always have to have five car lengths between cars, so when that guy crosses to make a left turn, he's going to have five car lengths between him and the next car. Well, even that doesn't sound too difficult. Let's build it a little more. Down the way a little bit you have a road that completely crosses it, the road that you're controlling, and the cars are always coming on that road, and you have to keep five car lengths between the cars on that road, five car lengths on the road going straight by your house, and five car lengths between the cars entering on the T. Now take that and imagine building it upon levels with different altitudes. And not only do cars want to drive on the road, but they want to change to different roads because they can do better fuel economy or speed or the number of people onboard or whatever, and you build this thing up and you always have to have five car lengths between them at all times, and no matter whether he's crossing, if a car has to leave the road to get gas or he wants to turn into a house to visit someone, or he wants to join back in the road, nobody can ever stop until he pulls completely off the road. So that's the controller's job is to always maintain the five car lengths between the cars.
Studs Terkel Six hundred miles an hour.
Jim Paulei At
Studs Terkel And in each of these vehicles, a plane in this case, are scores of--
Jim Paulei People.
Studs Terkel People.
Jim Paulei So if you make a mistake, now a mistake would be you'd only have four car lengths between cars.
Studs Terkel What happens if you make that slight mistake?
Jim Paulei Well, in the FAA under current rules, you're allowed three mistakes. Now, a mistake can be--well, let's put it in airplane terms. Now, we must maintain a thousand feet vertically between airplanes or 2000 feet vertically, depending on how high the airplane is. Once we get way up, you have to have 2000 feet between airplanes or five miles between them. So if you have four and a half miles between two, that's a mistake. The first time, they slap your hand and say, "You're a bad boy." The second time you let that happen, you're given a 10-day suspension from work. The third time, you're fired. Now, four and a half miles between airplanes is a long, long way. But it is less than the standard separation. So you have three of those mistakes like that. Now, if you have a near miss--
Studs Terkel A near miss is, describe a near miss.
Jim Paulei A near miss is when the aircraft, my description of it, and I think this would pretty well tally with most airline pilots and everyone else, is when the aircraft has to take an abrupt evasive action to miss the other aircraft. The one here just the other day south of Chicago between the American and the state-owned airplane, they missed by 300 feet. They missed because the pilots took evasive action to miss
Studs Terkel Now, 300 feet at 600 an hour is just a few seconds, isn't it?
Jim Paulei Not even a few seconds, it's like one second.
Studs Terkel So, that near miss can come about because an traffic controller was say, tired, or just his mind just for that moment went slightly blank,
Jim Paulei Right. Or he took his eye off to look at a bank of strips next to him, or someone came up and said, "We have to do this with an airplane coming," it's just a matter of momentary inattention.
Studs Terkel So a near miss is what, as far as an air traffic controller's job is concerned?
Jim Paulei That is something that shakes you very, very badly. Oh, let's take the case of the guy at New York. Remember when the guy missed the World Trade Center in New York? The controller caught him going, descending into the World Trade Building. That guy spent eight months off work recollecting himself, and he did absolutely nothing wrong. He was paying attention. He did his job. He caught the airplane going too low, saved him by causing the airplane to make an abrupt maneuver to miss the World Trade building, and he was so shaken by the experience that it took him eight weeks to recover.
Studs Terkel Let's come to that now. Illnesses to which an air traffic controller's heir to what happens to you. You were saying when you come closer to the airport, your wife driving you, your reply to her becomes more curt. Yes. No. Because now the tension is building in you. Now, this guy saved the pilot from going in, but he was out for it, who--week--you know, we're talking about eight hours a day.
Jim Paulei Right.
Studs Terkel We have a eight--we're talking about eight hours a day. This thing works in seconds, too, so we're talking about 60 seconds to an hour, 60 minutes--to a minute, 60 minutes to an hour, eight hours to a day. That build--who wants to be an air traffic controller? Well, what are some of the--when you come home? I mean, what are some of the illnesses? This guy was out for six months.
Jim Paulei No, he was out for two months, taking nerve pills and getting himself recollected. Well, basically it's the old saw of going home and kissing the dog and kicking the wife. But, it does, after you get home, and my home, whenever I got home from a day shift or whatever, everybody just leaves me alone for at least an hour, and I just sit down, lay down on a couch, try to get collected back together and get back to some semblance of normality again, particularly when you have the eight-hour turnaround, so we don't have those every day, but at least twice a week you have those. You don't have the time to sit down and relax because you're just starting to really gear down and start to get to rest and you got to gear back up to go back into the work.
Studs Terkel So what are the medical findings as far as an air traffic controller that makes his work somewhat different as far as occupational illnesses are concerned?
Jim Paulei Air traffic controllers have about four times the national average of the general population peptic ulcers. Roughly three to six times the incidence of hypertension, high blood pressure and heart problems. Any number of things. Controllers--the problem you have with statistics, though, is anyone can take those statistics and turn them around to their advantage, but we're talking about a report that was documented by the Chicago's--and the Boston School of Medicine by Dr. Rose. We're talking about a report that was done by a Dr. Coralson in 1970. The Rose report was done in 1978 when the FAA said that they had addressed the problems and controllers no longer had these problems, and yet only 11 out of 100 people make it to a normal retirement, which is admittedly the best retirement in the federal government.
Studs Terkel Wait, this is one out of ten roughly. One out of ten makes retirement and pension.
Jim Paulei Right.
Studs Terkel One out of ten. So what is a time for retirement? Is there
Jim Paulei Well, it's the best retirement
Jim Paulei It's a 20-year retirement at age 50 if you've worked for 20 years at age 50, or if you worked for 25 years at any age.
Studs Terkel I see, but the retirement benefits are great except that one out of ten makes it.
Jim Paulei Right.
Studs Terkel Eleven out of a hundred.
Jim Paulei And that's why the FAA statistics, not Patco statistics.
Studs Terkel So we're talking about a day. Now we're talking about a week, and that day becomes a week, and it's 40 hours. So it's not the same as 40 hours of a bank teller, of a spot welder at a plant has his own--we should make clear that you're aware of tensions in occupations all over.
Jim Paulei Oh, yeah, we say we're not unique in having tension.
Studs Terkel But your tensions involve scores, hund--well, daily, I suppose, thousands of lives. Hundreds of lives of other humans.
Jim Paulei Well, let's put it this way. The most airplanes I have ever personally controlled at one time was 38. Now, take 38 airplanes at an average cost--
Studs Terkel Thirty-eight planes
Jim Paulei Average cost per airplane, and this is probably low, it may be high, 25 million dollars per airplane, with each airplane carrying an average of, say, 100 people. So we're talking about over 3000 people and maybe a billion to two billion dollars' worth of equipment.
Studs Terkel But 3000, that's equipment, that's money, a billion, but as far as human life.
Jim Paulei Three thousand people
Studs Terkel Three thousand a day in the hands--
Jim Paulei No, this is at one time. This is only in a, maybe a half-hour time period.
Studs Terkel Oh, I'm sorry. Wait a minute. Three thousand in a half-hour time period.
Jim Paulei Right.
Studs Terkel So eight-hour day and it builds, of course, eight hours. You may get a little tired somewhere in the fourth or fifth or sixth hour.
Jim Paulei Right. Well, I don't want to give the impression that controllers don't get breaks, because we do get breaks off the job. This is one of the things people say, well, our work schedule is built so that we have no built-in break time. We're not scheduled for a 10-minute break in the morning or a 20-minute break in the morning and then a 10 or 15 or 20-minute break in the afternoon with a half-hour to an hour off for lunch. We're scheduled to work for eight hours. So to say we don't get a break is a fallacy.
Studs Terkel That's usually with 30,000 people, then you deal with about well, eight times, about 24, 25,000 people.
Jim Paulei Right.
Studs Terkel A day are coming in at 600 miles an hour. A number of them, you describe the situation and there are the traffic controllers to see that this happens without any mistake.
Jim Paulei Right. And we don't--we make mistakes. We're not perfect, because we're human beings. But generally our mistakes are such that instead of having five miles between airplanes we'll have the four and a half or four point nine miles, because we have machines that measure this out precisely, and if they--if somebody is really trying to make a case against you, I have never really seen a supervisor or anyone do this, but they could say you only had four point nine between those airplanes and you've got [a needed systems?] air review board.
Studs Terkel See, we know that, at least I do from work, the book "Working" and others, talking to hundreds of different people in occupations, that a great many of them daydream during the day. The work is dull, daydream. Now, if you were to daydream--
Jim Paulei You don't daydream. You don't have time. You have to be, your total concentration has to be on the radar when you're working the radar. That's not to say we don't have slack periods when there's nothing going. But as soon as the traffic is there, we are--it's a total concentration on what you're doing. And I'll give you an example. My brother-in-law came out and watched me work one day. He's a, works for General Motors Corporation in Detroit, and I let him watch me work a rush of airplanes coming over Dubuque, Iowa going to O'Hare. And he said after that, he said, "You know, I never realized that you could talk so fast or do so many different things at one time." He said, "You talked to me and you told me what you were doing. You talked to the guy that was standing up behind you. You talked to the guy who was sitting down beside you on your left side, you talked to the guy sitting down to, on your right side, and you talked to the airplanes and you seemed to do it all simultaneously." He said "I never realized that you could talk so fast."
Studs Terkel I was about to ask, we'll come to the question of hours and how it is in other countries in this civilized world of ours, that you are sitting there and others, your colleagues are sitting at their place, right?
Jim Paulei Right.
Studs Terkel Is there any--do you have contact with them?
Jim Paulei Oh, we have instantaneous telephone contact with Kansas City. Instantaneous contact with Minneapolis, Cleveland, Indianapolis--
Jim Paulei Plus watching that, the radar, and then above you on your left side you have rows of buttons, these rows of buttons, and I can instantly just punch onto a button and instantly talk to anyone in the building.
Studs Terkel So you, the Patco, the union you were asking, we'll come to a letter that was written to you by a candidate for president, a candidate named Ronald Reagan. His letter was like a promissory note in a sense. We'll come to that in a moment, because you're accused of having broken an oath. We'll come to that, too. But the 40 hours then, obviously are, since scores of thousands of lives are dependent on the alertness of the air traffic controller with 40 hours, are not 40 hours say of someone sitting behind a desk figuring something out or, for that matter, a spot welder. So in other countries, Germany, Sweden, England, France, air traffic controllers--I don't know whether they're sympathetic to you guys. What hours do they work?
Jim Paulei Well, let's take the least and we'll build up to the highest. Euro Control, which is the high-altitude agency controlling all of Europe, works 29 hours a week. England works, I believe, a 34-hour workweek. Switzerland works a 38-hour workweek. That is the highest outside the United States, 38 hours a week. Everyone else works about an average of a 34-hour workweek, going as low as 29 ,up to as high as 38 except the in the United States. The United States, inside the continental United States, we control 50 percent of the world's air traffic. Half of all the airplanes flying in the world today are inside the United States. And we're the only country in the world that works controllers a 40-hour workweek. Every other government in the world has come to the recognition that a controller is, and I hate to use the word, a "special" kind of person. A special kind of tension.
Studs Terkel Tension, a special kind of tension.
Jim Paulei And, well, I say a special kind of person because even in the FAA recruitment brochures that they put out for air traffic controllers says, "Join a unique breed, see if you can be a unique person."
Studs Terkel Is that what the FAA told you?
Jim Paulei Yes, they really do say that. I don't consider myself unique, but I do I consider myself talented in my job.
Studs Terkel But your tension is unique. Perhaps we come about training, too. The training you and your colleagues had and the training now with, how many of you have been fired now?
Jim Paulei There's approximately 11,800 of us fired.
Studs Terkel I'll ask about them and what's happened to them and a very interesting word that is not used very much these days, that apparently you'd like to talk about, too, something called "blacklist," what happens to them now, we'll come to that, but since it affects people who travel by plane, many listeners do. What about the training now going out for those who have replaced the 11,000? Jim Paulei's my guest. He's been an air traffic controller for 21 years and describing a life in the day of an air traffic controller. He's a member of Patco, the union that broke its oath. We'll come to that Broke its oath. And also he's unemployed. You working
Jim Paulei No, I--well, I'm working a lot longer hours today than I was, but I'm not getting paid for it now.
Studs Terkel So we'll talk about the nature of that oath and other oaths as well. What is the training you had?
Jim Paulei Okay, I started out in the Air Force and initially I took a 26-week course at Keesler Air Force Base to become an air traffic controller. Then I went out into the curve field and qualified in what is known as precision approach radar, and that took me about eight months training, and all I did was sit there and work one position in what we call a rapcon, radar approach control, and that's the person who, people identify in the movies as saying, "You're 20 feet above glide path, turn right, turn left, 20 feet below glide path, you're over touchdown. You're on the runway." That took me eight months to qualify at, and then I trained in other positions. It took me about, oh, a total of a year and a half in the Air Force to learn the job there. I progressed through the Air Force and became a supervisor. I left the Air Force after seven years and four months and eight days and went with the FAA. Went into the FAA and then I proceeded to train with the FAA after being a supervisor in the Air Force for three and a half years before I became a controller for the FAA. I have met some people who can do it quicker. I met one fellow who I trained in the FAA who was able to complete the training program in about two and a half years, the exception that makes the rule that says four years training in the FAA to make a controller. How the FAA today says they can take a person who has no background at all come into the facilities and train in two years, I can't see it. I've seen too many people fall by the wayside. For example, the training course in Oklahoma City: the initial 17 weeks at the FAA gives you has over a 25 percent failure rate there. Once you get out to the facilities and you actually start controlling airplanes, and you're always controlling under the watchful eye of another controller until he says you're ready to be a controller yourself, the failure rate there is in excess of 40 percent. So going--getting successfully through the academy does not mean you're going to be a controller, it just means that you've learned enough background knowledge to become a controller.
Studs Terkel So who have replaced the 11,000?
Jim Paulei No one as yet. A small number of military controllers, our over-abundant number of supervisors. The FAA has been billing the supervisory and staff ranks of late to tremendous numbers. As a matter of fact, there is one supervisor or staff member in the Air Traffic Service for every two controllers. Now, that's very top-heavy in management staff people.
Studs Terkel Now, those who are working--there's somebody is at the controls where you, Jim Paulei, was.
Jim Paulei The supervisors and the staff people.
Studs Terkel But are they short-handed now?
Jim Paulei Are they shorthanded? Chicago Center, let's take that for example, because I'm most familiar with that, we have, I think the total number is 75 or 80 people currently working in there, where you would normally have about 500.
Studs Terkel Wait a minute. Wait. Say that slowly now.
Jim Paulei Sure.
Studs Terkel There are 78 to 80 where you normally have 500, and you were describing the work of an air traffic controller earlier.
Jim Paulei Right. Right. And they're able to do this because they have something we asked for was a metering of air traffic to reduce the horrendous--instead of having eight airplanes take off at five o'clock in the afternoon from Chicago to go to New York and all eight of them arriving in New York at the same time. One of the things Patco asked for for a long time is, "Let's spread them out five minutes apart. But today let's let TWA take off on the hour and American take off at five minutes after the hour and Midway take off at ten minutes after the hour"--They said we can't do that, because then we're interfering with the competitiveness of the airlines. Okay.
Studs Terkel Wait a minute. No, slow, wait. Hold off. Patco asked for five-minute intervals--
Jim Paulei Well, we didn't ask for that specifically, but we
Studs Terkel But something so that the intervals between planes, so they'll be less chance of there being near misses. Less chance of moving closer. But FAA said it, or the company said it? Who said?
Jim Paulei The
Studs Terkel FAA said it would hurt competition.
Jim Paulei Right.
Studs Terkel So as far as human safety is concerned, that takes second place to the idea of competition.
Jim Paulei The only time the FAA is really concerned with safety is when an accident happens. The FAA and its predecessor the CAA never took any action to improve the system until a major disaster happened. Well, the really big disaster that started the FAA taking over from the CAA was the Grand Canyon crash in 1956 I believe it was. The next major improvement came with the midair collision over New York City between the TWA and I believe it was American 707 and a Super Constellation. The FAA only reacts to tragedy. As a matter of fact, the air traffic controllers have been the only people in the aviation industry who have ever struck or done anything to improve safety. Other people give it lip service, but Patco believes firmly in the safety issue.
Studs Terkel So it's safety. So let's come to the big question now. It's the one in the minds--it's the big question is the one you've really talked about, but one that is considered the big question as far as public relations. Patco broke an oath that you signed, no government employees go on strike, and so Ronald Reagan, president, by God you did, and so you're all canned. Okay. Now here's a candidate, Ronald Reagan, October 20th, 1980, 17 days before he was elected president: "To the president of Professional Air Traffic Controllers," a copy of the letter, I'll read you just portions of it that apply. "Dear Mr. Paulei, I've been thoroughly briefed by members of my staff as to the deplorable state of our nation's air traffic control system. They have told me that too few people work unreasonable hours with obsolete equipment and has placed the nation's air travelers in unwarranted danger. An area so clearly related to public safety, the Carter administration has failed to act responsibly. You can rest assured," this is Ronald Reagan's letter to Patco October 20th, 1980, "You can rest assured if I'm elected president I will take whatever steps are necessary to provide our air traffic controllers with the most modern equipment available and adjust staff levels and," I underline this, "work days so that they are commensurate with achieving maximum degree of public safety. I pledge you that my administration will work very closely with you to bring about a spirit of cooperation between the president and the air traffic controllers." That sounds like a promise.
Studs Terkel Pledge. That's kind of an oath, isn't it?
Jim Paulei Well, I looked it up in a legal dictionary. A vow, a pledge, and an oath. The three words are synonymous, virtually synonymous. He pledges that he is going to do something,
Studs Terkel Did he, by the way, before you went out on strike. Did he offer any hint that he would do this?
Jim Paulei No, but we anticipated when we went out on strike that everything that's happened to us thus far would happen, with one major exception: the exception was we expected Secretary Lewis or FAA administrator Helms to say, "You're all fired." We did not anticipate the president coming out and saying, "You're fired." That's the only real surprise
Studs Terkel By the way, I hate to sound ironic at your expense, but Patco, as a result of this letter came out enthusiastically for Ronald Reagan for president.
Jim Paulei Yes, we did support him. And I personally voted for him.
Studs Terkel Well, that's the letter. So--
Jim Paulei I hired the man who fired me.
Studs Terkel Technically, you broke--the fact that a guy running for office, some will say, "Well, he runs for office, he doesn't really mean it". Well, there we are again. But that was his pledge to you.
Jim Paulei But there is one thing to say about that, though. Most campaign promises are made in a speech orally and the candidate can say, "Hey, I didn't really mean."
Studs Terkel But you got the letter.
Jim Paulei This we have in writing. So we believed it.
Studs Terkel But nonetheless, you broke the oath. Now, here's a letter, I'll read parts of a letter of an air traffic controller striking, and perhaps it's about this very oath. Now here's, I think this is worth reading, you don't mind if--
Studs Terkel You want to read this?
Jim Paulei No, you go ahead. You're a much better reader than I am, at least out loud.
Studs Terkel "Almost four years ago, I was striking, I signed an oath I would not strike against my employers. I did so in good faith without deceit. When one needs a job, the ability to hit the bricks is not necessarily a quality one lists on his resume. I couldn't fault anyone at the point for asking me to work for them. That is, to say is history. Now I feel moved to tell you Mr. and Mrs. America, why this particular traffic controller has walked off his post. All of us make oaths we fully intend to keep but ended up breaking for one reason or another. It is these reasons, in quote which must be examined in order to determine whether or not going back on one's word is in order. Okay. A promise is a promise, right. Let us suppose I make a promise to you not to talk to me while in a movie theater. It's a pet peeve of mine (he says in parenthesis). Naturally, for the sake of my argument you spot a fire while those around you are unaware. Now, which now has more value, the promise made to me under threat of no more movies or if you talk or in this case you get fired if you strike? Or the safety of everyone in the theater? Well, for three and a half years I've munched my popcorn and watched the movie like everybody else. I notice that very few full-performance controllers had retirement parties, which is to say most of them did not reach that point in their careers, 11 out of 100. I learned that every area in the center where I work has own economy size of antacid tablets." I never asked you about that. Quite a bit of that is taken.
Jim Paulei Oh, yeah. We in each desk in each area, and there are seven different areas where I work inside the building, each one has its thousand-tablet bottle of antacid and aspirin tablets, both.
Studs Terkel Do you know what else? We'll continue the letter of the striking air controller. "I learned why that jar, the jar of the tablets, is there. I began to smell smoke in the theater. The night an airplane's transponder"--transponder?
Jim Paulei Transponder. That's a way of seeing the airplane easier than just--well, it gets very technical.
Studs Terkel But you spot an airplane's transponder malfunctioned long enough to get lost amid the thunderstorms and confusion of combining two radar positions into one and seeing the target reappear and merge with an identical target going in the opposite direction." Oh, that particular situation, here's his parenthesis, very interesting: was caused by one of the veteran supervisors in quotes "now controlling traffic during the strike. I look around to see if anyone else noticed anything wrong. Maybe some time off would help. No, I can't make Easter dinner or Thanksgiving either. I have to work swing shifts, Christmas, seven to three p.m., be back in 11 that night for a midnight shift. So give my boy a kiss to me. Gonna take my summer vacation October" and then it continues. But a crackling noise, he comes back to the analogy of the theater, the promise he made not to talk during the movie. A promise is a promise, a promise air controllers made not to strike or you cost your job and or the sign of fire in a theater, or in this case the danger of more and more accidents. They work these hours. That crackling noise, was it really a fire or just the center's aged overworked computer system doing pushups again? And it continues with it. Now I could have asked one thing: I haven't asked you about the equipment itself. There were promises of very modern equipment, right?
Jim Paulei Right. Well, excluding the radars--the new computer that we have, and I'll say new because it was designed in 1960 and installed in 1973, some of my radio equipment, the newest that I was ever able to find for radio switching equipment was dated 1948, very far behind the state of the art today. The computer we use up until the time of the strike was running at 97 percent capacity, and if anyone knows anything about a computer, the closer it gets to 100 percent capacity the slower it goes. I've input data into the computer when I need instantaneous responses to that data and had it take 20, 25 seconds to respond.
Studs Terkel So the equipment is outdated.
Jim Paulei Tremendously outdated. The computer we have now takes up about 10,000 square feet of floor space in a adjacent building to the center. That same computer with the same amount of capacity could probably be put on the top of a standard business desk today, with today's technology.
Studs Terkel Let me finish the letter of your colleague, the striking air traffic controller, about the analogy of the fire in the theater. "We promised not to talk. I stood up in my seat and faced the audience. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a problem here. Please leave the theater by the nearest exit. I was trying to sound calm when suddenly this elderly gentleman knocked me down and trampled on me. Guess who? Our president, in his infinite wisdom screamed "You're to leave this place and never return. You're fired. Don't go back." Then he departed via the west exit and hasn't been seen or heard from since. So it's come to this. I have broken my oath and been fired for reporting a fire. And if you're still flying or contemplating it, you're sitting in that burning theater." Well, I'm talking to Jim Paulei, who is a fired air traffic controller, and the reason he's on, I have two reasons, frankly, one: I missed having an air traffic controller in my book "Working" and trying to catch up, and two, it's a side of the case I'm afraid you haven't heard. We have a press and now and then you have, you hear an air traffic controller in the main and on TV, you've seen the president talking and you've seen very righteous editorials, oh how righteous, and on occasion you hear someone like Jim Paulei, so I sort of want to make it a little more equitable. I haven't asked you about the way it is now, the 11,000 who have been canned or locked out. By the way, there's an old-time word called a "lockout"--how can there be an injunction against striking if you're locked out?
Jim Paulei This was a problem the federal courts had, they called some of our members down with a temporary restraining order, which we've learned a little legalese here and it's called the "TRO," and we were ordered back to work. And the judge called them down and was going to fine them and put the leadership of the union in jail for violating his TRO, and then he said, "Well, why haven't you gone back to work?" And the leadership of the union informed him that even if they wanted to go back to work, the FAA wouldn't take them back in, and the judge asked the government's lawyer "Is that true?" And he said, "Yes," and he said, "Well, how can you expect me to sentence these people or fine them when even if they try to do what I've told them to do in my order, you won't let them do it?" So that's an old-fashioned word, the lockout. Yeah,
Studs Terkel Yeah, lockout. So was blacklist, blacklist is the word we hardly hear used. It was a big word in the vocabulary of American working people for decades, for a century, ever since unions came into being, or even before unions, blacklist, it means you can't get a job. There's an understanding among employers that this guy's a troublemaker or union guy, he's just blacklisted. So what happened? You had a couple of cases that involved the government. Would you mind?
Jim Paulei Well, let's start out with, there are--when we say controllers that work in this country only for the federal government, that's true in this country. But there are two companies, at least two other companies in this country, who hire traffic controllers to work in foreign countries. I'll leave out their names, but the companies provide American air traffic controllers to go overseas and teach other controllers how to do the job. Since the strike has happened we have at least one case, and I personally was involved in one, I applied just to see what would happen. I got a letter back from a company saying "We're sorry to inform you that we cannot hire you because the government of a country where we're hiring you for will not accept an air traffic controller who left the FAA after August the 3rd."
Studs Terkel Let me get this now. The government, there's an outside government, would not hire you.
Jim Paulei Right. They would not let the company providing the service hire me to
Studs Terkel Now, that outside government wouldn't--they have to come to one conclusion, that they were told.
Jim Paulei That's my conclusion.
Studs Terkel Well, I don't know what other you can come to. In short, you imply that the government, the FAA here, has pressured or whatever with the other not to hire you.
Jim Paulei That is at least my impression, because there was a fellow who was hired by this company, he was going to leave the FAA. He had already served the FAA notice that he was leaving, that he was going to go to this other country to become a controller there, and he signed his resignation on August the 5th. He left to go to the foreign country, got to New York about ready to get on the airplane in New York to fly to the foreign country, and the company sent him a telegram or called him at the airport or left a message for him to call, I'm not exactly sure the exact circumstance, and so "We're sorry. You are no longer employed by us." Because he had resigned after August the 3rd.
Studs Terkel So, two other cases. There are two--we'll not name the companies. Two very large airline companies. Would you mind describing that?
Jim Paulei Well, there is a fellow in Detroit who tried to get a job for the trucking industry being his own owner/operator/leasor of a particular company, and he was told by the employment man or the guy who arranges the financing for the trucks, he said, "We'll accept your application, but because I have a large number of government contracts, I cannot hire you. The Interstate Commerce Commission has said that I'm not to hire any fired air traffic controllers to do this job." Now, I'm not saying there's a blacklist around, but the impression sure is becoming awfully, awfully strong in a lot
Studs Terkel If that isn't a blacklist, will somebody tell me what is. Anyways, we're talking about something going on right now to which an American public by and large is not privy, and that's why I invited Jim Paulei to be a guest on this program, and the one other aspect, perhaps sometimes the only language that people understand sometimes, "What's it mean to me?" Well, obviously we're talking about safety as well and security. What I call internal security. [Talking?] about national security so much, so in national security here, too. Okay. I don't know what else to say. It's a day in the life of an air traffic controller. And you've been out of work now how long, see?
Jim Paulei Let's see, this is the beginning of the tenth week, I believe, now.
Studs Terkel And, so, any postscript? The hour's gone by, we now know about you, your family, when you drive to work, mostly the nature of your work itself, the hours, the tensions, and broken promises. And fire in the theater. Anything comes to your mind we haven't talked about you feel like saying?
Jim Paulei Well, there's one other thing. With the Government's current budget cost-cutting, we've worked it out, and I used an FAA's report that was dated in 1978 that said, for figures on what it cost to train a new controller, we must assume that they're going to hire 10,000 new controllers because the government hasn't decided how many it's going to hire to replace us yet. But my report shows it costs $177,000 to train a new controller. If they hire 10,000 that's a minimum cost of $1.7 billion dollars. The Patco contract cost, according to government estimates, a little over $600 million dollars to give us, they offered us a $40 million dollar contract package. How can they say that they couldn't afford to give us more than $40 million dollars when all of a sudden they're willing to spend $1.7 billion dollars for, to replace us?
Studs Terkel So the government then, if the air traffic controllers working, scabbing, replacing the striking controllers, are to be as good as you guys, anywhere nearly as good, would cost twice as much to train them as it would have been to agree with Patco.
Jim Paulei And now that was our
Studs Terkel So we're talking about cutting, and of course, paid for by taxpayers, naturally. Of course, there's one other thing missing: machismo, by God. An ersatz cowboy says, "I'll show them, by God." We love macho, and that's probably what it's all about. And so we love macho that much, we have a situation, machismo. Jim Paulei, thank you very much for offering us a picture, a portrait of a day in the life of an air traffic controller.