An expert on air traffic controllers says the smoke from the battle between controllers and the federal government obscures the controllers' real problems, and warns that the strike could damage the entire air control system.
Dr. Robert Rose, a psychiatrist at the University of Texas Medical School in Galveston, studied air traffic controllers for five years at Boston's Logan International Airport in a 2.8 million study commissioned by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Dr. Rose said he found the real problems facing the controllers are not the pay or the hours that they work, even though those are the main issues the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization is arguing with the government.
"How is it that a group of men, highly trained and very intelligent, would risk losing a job for which there is no other employment opportunity, and risk going to jail, just for more pay?" Dr. rose asked.
"I believe the strike is a result of the alienation of the controllers from their management.Most of the time when something goes wrong, the controllers are not supported by their supervisors -- they are left out there all alone.
"They have no reward for doing a good job; there is no positive reenforcement ," he said.
"All they get is negative reinforcement if something goes wrong."
The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Union (PATCO) is trying to solve the controllers' problems by getting them more pay and shorter hours, he said. But that's not the crux of what's bothering them, he adds. The most serious problem is the feeling of vulnerability that arises from the serious consequences of an on-the-job mistake. And the union may unwittingly be adding to the alienation of the controllers -- by not focusing on ways to reduce that feeling of vulnerability, he adds.
From interviews, checkups, and other data, Dr. Rose found that controllers suffered from certain stress-related disorders two or three times as often as average workers.
While the tension is not unrelenting, Dr. Rose says, the job is more stressful than most occupations that are considered high risk because a controller knows he will bear the guilt of possibly causing a serious accident if he makes a single mistake.
"There are a series of things that suddenly can go wrong that change a routine operation into a high stress operation," Dr. Rose said. "The weather can deteriorate, the amount of traffic congestion can suddenly build up, a private pilot won't understand a command, planes get too close together.
"A controller knows that something very horrible could happen in seconds . . . and that's always hanging over his head," Doctor Rose said.
"Life and death situations don't happen continually, but they happen often enough," he adds.
A better procedure for the controllers to air their grievances should be created, he said, and the controllers should be given a greater voice in how towers and air control centers are operated.
"I think the whole brouhaha could have been avoided," Dr. Rose said, "if the government would set up a retirement system for the controllers like the military has. Have them work five years in training and 15 years on the job, and then give them retirement benefits."
"I am concerned that if they go to jail and get fired they will be individually hurt, and the system will be compromised," he said. "Morale will be even worse than it is now. Those who struck will be very hostile to those who didn't."
"And the government can fire all of them and bring in an entirely new crew," he said, "but the seeds of discontent that caused this strike will still be there."