Air traffic controllers, of course, have a history of militant unionism. Frustrated controllers had begun forming professional associations by 1960, and in 1961 John F. Kennedy gave controllers the right to be represented by trade unions. Attorney F. Lee Bailey eventually helped controllers form the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), which would go on to force a seminal labor showdown with Ronald Reagan, striking illegally in 1981. Reagan fired 11,000 controllers. Nolan, the Purdue professor, says it took ten years for staffing levels to return to normal (today, there are 15,000 controllers around the country). PATCO was decertified in 1981; NATCA was formed six years later.

Denis Burke, the air traffic manager at the Elgin Tracon, says one source of frustration for controllers--then and now--is that their government salaries will never match what their skills might bring in the private sector.

Controllers--an overwhelmingly male group--must have two- or four-year college degrees, or comparable work experience, to qualify for the job. They have to clear health and security checks, as well as pass a pre-employment aptitude test for spatial skills. Because the FAA has found that controllers' skills decline at a relatively young age, no one over 30 will be hired for a first job. Once they have survived the screening process, applicants are sent through a 15-week program at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, learning the rules and regulations of the craft. Then they generally start out at small airports such as South Bend, Indiana, or Grand Forks, North Dakota, taking one to four years to become fully certified to work at a hot spot like O'Hare. The pay for a rookie at a small airfield starts as low as $24,000 a year, while a veteran controller at a large airport can earn close to $100,000.

"You can really talk yourself into feeling pretty special," says Burke. "But you're getting the same pay as someone working in the Social Security Administration, where stress is 20 people who wanted new cards. Meanwhile, you just worked 120 airplanes. You can't match performance with reward."

The attributes that make for a good controller--a perfectionist with the ability to focus on detail, to think quickly but calmly, to handle stress with aplomb, and to have supreme self-confidence--are the qualities that make controllers a feisty bunch. What's more, the job forces them to be creatures of routine, which often makes it difficult for the FAA to enact change. The keyboards at their workstations, for example, are arranged in alphabetical order, not the "qwerty" of the real world. When one version of a new system was designed in qwerty style, "the controllers just went nuts," recalls Tom Austin. The change was canceled.

"What the hell is this guy doing?" Austin cries. "American 807, you with me?" He asks John Misner, the controller on his right, "You got American 807?" But then, without waiting for an answer, he rushes on: "Bullshit. He's all fucked up. He's gonna go north, isn't he? I hope so. There he goes. Now he's going north, right? He's just getting the hell out of the way. Pull up, pull up!"

Controllers work no more than two hours without a break, and often less. It's time for Austin's break. He goes to the cafeteria for a cheeseburger. A few controllers are watching The Jerry Springer Show. No one is using the Ping-Pong table. A nearby exercise room is available for working off stress.

"The real stress is from your peers," says Austin. "You don't want them to make fun of you." That means not crumbling when the going gets tough, and keeping the wisecracks with pilots sharp. The best ones are submitted to The NATCA Voice; typically they feature the bite of this exchange:

Controller: "EAL 852, you're six miles south of course."

Pilot: "Son, I have 26 years' experience as a captain, and I am not south of course."

Controller: "Attention all captains with less than 26 years' experience. You're all six miles north of course. Please correct to the south."

Controllers and pilots often clash, partly because they have similar personalities, says Nolan, the Purdue professor. "It's extreme confidence. They can't go in thinking, God, I hope I don't screw up. They'd be dead meat."

Listening to air traffic controllers talk--both privately and in their public pronouncements--it's easy to come away frightened about safety in the skies. And it is hardly reassuring that the FAA shoulders the dual and, critics argue, conflicting responsibilities of promoting the aviation industry while regulating its safety. That makes the FAA reluctant to do or say anything publicly that could harm the public's confidence in flying.

But even one of the FAA's harshest critics--the office of inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation--maintains that the current system is remarkably safe. "In air traffic control, there are built-in backups," says Alexis Stefani, deputy assistant inspector general for aviation. "As long as everyone is doing their job and is properly trained, everyone is safe."

On the other hand, Stefani and other observers agree that the troublesome technology the controllers complain about causes many of the burdensome delays that are costly to both passengers and airlines. Still, in nitpicking and exaggerating the dangers of the air traffic system, the controllers are probably playing a vital role in maintaining its safety.

Last February, an O'Hare controller put a 50-seat United Express flight from Wilkes-Barre-Scranton too close behind a Mexicana Airlines 757. Caught in the larger plane's powerful wake, the United Express flight rolled 45 degrees before the pilot regained control and pulled out of his landing approach 13 miles from the airport.

The problem? The data tag on the controller's screen was missing the designation warning controllers that the Mexicana, a 757, was a large plane requiring an extra mile of separation. The airline had filed the incomplete designation on the plane's flight plan before it left Mexico City, and the air traffic control computer system did not flag the error.

Tony Molinaro, the FAA regional public affairs officer, says controllers have to serve as their own backup: "We can't just depend on airlines' supplying correct codes." But he also said the FAA was working on solving the glitch.

History is rife with examples of what can happen when even minor problems are ignored. In her 1996 book about the Challenger space shuttle disaster, The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA, sociologist Diane Vaughan shows how organizational cultures can lead to a kind of dumbing down, in which declining standards are tolerated long enough to become an accepted level of operation. Vaughan argues that the space shuttle program achieved its goals despite conditions that were less than optimal, thus creating a tolerance for imperfection that led to the events that destroyed Challenger.

The 1996 crash of a ValuJet flight in Florida may also have followed from a relaxing of standards. Mechanics working at SabreTech, an aircraft maintenance firm, got used to putting flammable oxygen canisters into cargo holds even though doing so violated regulations governing the transport of hazardous materials. Sharon Jones, in an aerospace research project at the University of Texas, wrote in 1997 that every time an oxygen canister was loaded as cargo without consequence, the dangers seemed diminished. Then some canisters exploded aboard the ValuJet flight, downing it over the Everglades.

Tom Austin ends his day back at the arrival desk for O'Hare-bound flights after a short stint working the air traffic headed for satellite airports like Palwaukee and DuPage. This time he's working runway 14R. He brings in American 536, Continental 1102, and United Express 7818 to end his day. He's disappointed. Because of the weather, the winds at Midway, and the staggered landings enacted after the radar glitch, air traffic today was considerably slowed. "We could've landed a third more planes," he says. "We lowered the rate too much. The airlines canceled fights." It's just after two in the afternoon. Austin is scheduled to return later to work the midnight shift, which is mostly cargo planes. That's only ten hours away, but you get the sense he can't wait.

"It's an adrenaline rush. You work the rushes, then there's a big letdown. There's maybe one rush a day," he says. "That's why we're here."

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