Chicago — Like any other cross section of Americans, the more than 11,000 air traffic controllers dismissed en masse by President Reagan after the illegal walkout of 1981, are now doing everything from computer programming to truck driving. Some 1,000 of them are still using their special skills as controllers, while others manage restaurants or work for the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
Since the walkout, 650 controllers have gone back to work for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) -- though usually in a different facility -- as a result of out-of-court settlements and hearings. There have been no reports of friction between fired, then reinstated controllers and their newly hired counterparts. As one longtime East Coast controller says: ``We needed them badly, and they've been a blessing.''
Another 300 to 400 former controllers now guide planes in such varied overseas spots as Saudi Arabia, Canada, Algeria, and American Samoa.
The growing move to contract out control-tower operations at smaller airports is also opening up jobs for former controllers. An Atlanta-based company made up entirely of former FAA controllers recently won the contract to operate the control tower at the Topeka, Kan., airport. And contractors at 11 other towers under private operation so far have had ``no hesitation about hiring our people,'' says William Taylor, national coordinator for PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) Lives, a new communications and lobbying group for the former FAA controllers.
A high percentage of former controllers took the retirement money they had earned to start their own businesses or to invest in further training with an eye to becoming lawyers, accountants, and teachers. One Colorado controller with 20 years experience now owns 50 percent of an auto salvage yard and says he is making it work.
A number of others have taken sales jobs. ``A lot are doing quite well at that. They tend to be extroverted with good solid egos,'' Mr. Taylor says.
Other controllers have rejoined branches of the armed services where many, according to Taylor, have taken back jobs they once held as pilots.
Former Milwaukee controller Gary Naines, who now manages a restaurant, says he probably could get work as a controller for a private contractor or for the Department of Defense. But he says the latter would involve calls to each individual base to see if there were openings. ``Frankly I haven't had the motivation to go through the government application process again,'' he says.
Many former controllers have found it tough to get jobs in other government agencies. Although President Reagan stressed that former controllers would not be barred from such alternate employment, Taylor says many early on were effectively ``blacklisted'' and subjected to ``bureaucratic'' hassles. More recently, however, some have been hired on by the IRS and the US Postal Service. ``Time has helped to get emotions down and politics out of the way,'' says Taylor.
According to a survey conducted last year by Stephen O'Keefe, a former FAA controller working for his bachelor's degree in human relations, three-fourths of former controllers said their standard of living had declined since being fired. The study -- made at the request of the now defunct US Air Traffic Controllers Organization, a successor to PATCO -- at least two-thirds of the former controllers would like to work as FAA controllers again under certain conditions. But only 11 percent thought such reinstatement likely. As Milwaukee's Mr. Naines says: ``I have to live my life as if I'm not going back.''
Not all controllers, of course, want to go back. Dennis McCollough, a former controller at a major Kansas City airport who recently won his third promotion in data processing for a dairy firm, says he is not earning as much as he was but reports the hours are better and there is less strain. During 14 years as a controller, he says he saw only one colleague take the normal full route to retirement. Others opted out with medical leaves and the like prior to full retirement.
``I still feel what we did [the walkout] was justified,'' he says. ``And I have no desire to work airplanes again.''
There are currently about 1,500 lawsuits filed by former controllers awaiting outcomes of federal appeals.
But most observers say the US Supreme Court's refusal to hear two cases involving fired controllers is a sign that few, if any more of the former FAA employees, are likely to be reinstated. FAA spokesman Dennis Feldman says the controllers let go ``were fired properly -- the FAA will not take them back.''
But Taylor says that many former controllers have every intention of challenging the legality of President Reagan's indefinite ban on FAA rehiring of any the fired controllers. Taylor says the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 limits any such disqualifying move to a three-year time span. He argues too that the FAA's need for experienced controllers continues to be strong -- particularly this year when an unusually high number of experienced controllers (2,665) are eligible for retirement.
The FAA's Mr. Feldman, who has no way of knowing how many will leave, says close to 8,000 of the 14,381 controllers now on the FAA payroll are ranked as ``fully qualified.''