Strike underlines long-standing problems at the FAA

The air traffic controllers strike has centered attention on a long-standing problem: the tense relationship and poor communication between management and labor at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Remedial action, which now seems likely, could vastly improve the working atmosphere for the new generation of controllers-in-training who in time are expected to move into strikers' jobs.

The issue has surfaced as a critical one, time and again, in studies focusing on controllers. Most recently a five-year report for the FAA, written by a group of behavioral scientists at Boston University, pinpointed low morale and an intense feeling of alienation from their managers on the part of controllers. The 1978 study recommended specifically that steps be taken to improve labor relations on grounds that they were really more important than the economic problems.

Striking controllers agree that the working atmosphere, including a rekindling of trust and respect between employer and employee, must be improved if future controllers are to find satisfaction in their jobs.

But veteran aviation watchers also caution that when the changes come, if they do, the controllers, too, will have to "give" to make them work.

The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) has not been eager at the local level to sit down and resolve problems in the working relationship, says Dr. Robert M. Rose says, one of the chief authors of the Boston University study and now a psychiatry professor at the University of Texas. "As far as I can see, there's no one in this scenario walking around with a white hat on."

In the past the FAA has been reluctant to admit the existence of any boss-worker problem at all. It was thus considered a major concession when Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis admitted in response to a reporter's question last week that controllers probably had a legitimate gripe in complaining that the FAA had been a bad employer to work for.

In the view of many who keep a professionally close watch on labor-management relations at the FAA, the government's move to decertify PATCO as the official representative of the controllers makes some FAA attempt at reform more imperative than ever. Although as late as Aug. 16 PATCO president Robert Poli said on CBS's "Face the Nation" that he did not think the union would be decertified, most legal experts say the government's move is almost certain to be successful.

But, fresh prod to action or not, FAA spokesman as yet can point to no graphic plans for change in the labor-management working-relationship.

"There are lots of ways to go -- from local rap groups to work study groups -- but I see a great deal of resistance to this and a very 'hard line' attitude, " observes Dr. Rose. "I hope I'm wrong . . . but I think the problem is the FAA's lack of willingness to acknowledge in a significant way that there is a problem."

Independent aviation consultant Charles Miller says that there has been some improvement in what he calls the "guilty until proven innocent" syndrome regarding controllers which he says used to prevail at the FAA. He recalls that there was a time when individual controllers were being sued in accidents and getting no legal help or dollar support for it from the FAA. While that situation has been corrected. Mr. Miller says he thinks existing "antagonism" between labor and management at the agency could be significantly reduced by the introduction of an ombudsman in the safety area to see that controllers get a "fair shake." He also suggests that the FAA, prone as it is as a government agency to passing regulations, be willing to take a hard look at how good its rules are rather than just how well they are implemented and to realize that they are written as a "baseline" and cannot cover anything.

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