You Can't Win 'Em All

It was a tricky game, requiring highly skilled players with a well honed sense of timing and an unwavering commitment to win. It was a game where the pieces moving across the field of play actually stood to lose more than the players themselves. Believe it or not, this was also a game where our opponents weren't even direct participants. The game gained national prominence in 1976; the year when PATCO insisted on higher pay for controllers via reclassification by the Civil Service commission. When the CSC denied most reclassification requests, PATCO called for a "work-by-the-book" job action; a proper sounding euphemism for the air traffic slowdown that followed.

The idea behind a slowdown was simple. If users of the air traffic system experienced enough capricious delays and attending financial penalties, they would apply pressure on PATCO's key adversaries - FAA's local, regional and/or national management. Since management, in theory, had no effective means of thwarting a slowdown's unpredictable tactics; they'd eventually have to cede the game to PATCO rather than suffer the incessant complaining and criticizing by the users.

Rules of this game were intentionally vague, which made it an all the more effective way to slow things down. The crux of any slowdown (there were others) was to penalize the flying public in order to achieve the desired result. It was similar to taking hostages and demanding a ransom, except that the likelihood of an FBI sniper team showing up to shoot air traffic controllers was practically nil. Unless, of course, the airlines had their way...

So...just imagine you were a loyal PATCO foot soldier in 1976. Oh sure; you'd be caught up in all the excitement of the Bicentennial celebrations. You would also be watching the reclassification negotiations from afar and becoming frustrated by the apparent lack of progress. Your local union representative puts the word out. PATCO is calling for a slowdown. What did you do? Although there were several variations of the game, we'll examine just one of them here.

If you worked in a radar facility, you might have considered a slowdown variation called 'Spin Em.' A perennial favorite, it was a costly and effective gambit. As I indicated earlier, timing was crucial but I suppose anyone able to throw a bowling ball into the open window of a speeding train could probably play 'Spin Em.' The question was; would they want to?

To play, you needed two controllers, one interfacility airspace boundary and one airplane full of hapless pawns. The airplane must be in handoff status to the receiving controller and approaching the boundary - hopefully at a good clip. If you are the receiving controller you must appear to have simply missed seeing the attempted handoff until such time as the transferring controller starts to turn the flight around - or 'Spin Em.' Transferring controllers would usually call on the handoff line, but only (and this is important), only after turning the aircraft away from the interfacility boundary.

No one ever expected their call to be answered promptly. In fact; it shouldn't have been! Finally, when the aircraft was clearly into a turn away from the boundary, the handoff could be accepted...but never soon enough for the aircraft to avoid having to make a complete 360 degree turn or two. Then, with the artistry and aplomb of a seasoned thespian, the receiving controller added to the stratagem of this scenario by picking up the handoff line and apologizing profusely for not taking the handoff in time.

Time lost, fuel wasted - score one point for Team PATCO.

Repeating the 'Spin Em' ploy arbitrarily though out the day and in dozens of radar facilities across the country would, hopefully, weaken your opponent's will and, perhaps, strengthen PATCO's hand at the bargaining table. User outrage over the minutes added to flight times and increased fuel costs would bring the union closer to winning the game.

Another dimension could be added to this scenario by getting the tower engaged when a round of 'Spin Em' was under way. They'd be told when a particular traffic flow was 'spinning' and be ordered to stop any additional departures headed that way. Even a brief stop could spread havoc right down to the taxiways and send the supervisors into a tizzy. Great fun! Well...not really...not for me anyway.

When the slowdown began, I had just completed my training at Big Time and was anxious to work airplanes. The constraints associated with a job action were as appealing to me as suffocation - but I played along. While a few of the old-timers could thumb their noses at peer pressure, it was nearly impossible for a rookie.

Participation was not always voluntary. Whether you were eager to play or not; the same erratic attributes that made a slowdown effective evoked difficulties for even the most experienced and willing participants. In the 'spin em' scenario, for example, there was no way of knowing which flights would be affected. As you drove your traffic toward the neighboring boundary, you couldn't know whether you'd end up spinning or not. You might actually have several flights, in trail, headed for the same handoff point. Spinning the first flight would probably result in having to spin the others. Things could get out of hand pretty quickly.

PATCO ultimately won this particular game of slowdown. Jerry Ford's administration supported a reclassification but CSC delays held the raise up until January of 1977. Impatient, PATCO told the CSC to hurry or there'd be another job action that would affect the upcoming inauguration of Jimmy Carter.

That was not the final curtain call for slowdowns. PATCO played the slowdown card once more in 1978. The outcome wasn't so good. This time, they wanted an expansion of the FAM Trip program; to include more overseas flights. Three air carriers (Pan Am, TWA & Northwest) balked at the idea, thus becoming specific targets in the ensuing mayhem. John Leyden, PATCO's President at the time, was quoted as saying the airlines "can allow us a free seat or spend some money burning fuel."

This time, the union overplayed their hand. The Air Transport Association brought legal action against PATCO. A federal court found controllers in violation of a standing injunction against slowdowns and ordered the union to pay a hundred thousand of their dues payer's dollars to the ATA. Cash wasn't all that was lost. As the story goes, there were several Congressmen and other high-rollers delayed by the slowdown. Their displeasure cost PATCO a lot more currency... of the political kind.

They said you can't win them all. Or was it "Quit while you're ahead?" I can't remember but I suppose PATCO must have realized they'd need a weapon with more shock and awe than a slowdown the next time.

© NLA Factor, 2010

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