JOHN YDSTIE, host:
It's been 26 years since President Reagan fired the nation's air traffic controllers following a union strike. Since last September, the current generation of controllers has been working under an imposed contract. That's led to some unusual protests.
From member station WKSU, Karen Schaefer reports.
KAREN SCHAEFER: After contract negotiations between air traffic controllers and the Federal Aviation Administration broke down last year, the FAA imposed its own work rules. Among them is a gender-appropriate dress code that inspired a few male controllers to protest by coming to work in dresses.
Others, like some controllers at the Cleveland Air Route Control Center in Oberlin, Ohio, displayed their defiance by wearing pink every Friday. But behind controllers' whimsical revolt are deeper concerns. Sixteen-year veteran Melissa Ott says worker fatigue is becoming a major problem.
Ms. MELISSA OTT (Union Spokeswoman, Cleveland Air Route Control Center): Whereas before, you'd be on position for two hours, you would have to get a break. They don't do that now. You can sit there for three, three and a half, four hours, before they have to give you a break because they don't have the people here anymore to staff these positions.
Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)
SCHAEFER: The Cleveland Center is one of the four busiest FAA air traffic control facilities in the country. Ott says there aren't enough experienced controllers because hundreds are reaching retirement age and leaving the agency in droves.
Ms. OTT: You've got people walking out the door. Your experience is leaving.
SCHAEFER: While Ott and others fear that fewer experienced controllers could narrow safety margins, Deputy FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell strongly disagrees.
Mr. ROBERT STURGELL (Deputy Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration): We would never compromise safety. If staffing is an issue, then the way we handle that is to slow down and meter the traffic so that safety never becomes a problem.
SCHAEFER: Sturgell says, this year, the agency expects to hire more than 1,400 new controllers, at least 200 more than are expected to retire. But it takes several years before trainees are ready to handle air traffic on their own. Right now at the Cleveland Center, nearly 17 percent of controllers are trainees. Now the agency wants Congress to authorize a new $45 billion GPS-style satellite-based air traffic control system this fall.
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SCHAEFER: At Ohio's Kent State University flight school, aviation director Isaac Nettey says he's concerned that the standoff between controllers and the FAA could delay implementation of the new GPS system.
Mr. ISAAC NETTEY (Aviation Director, Kent State University): We do expect the volume of traffic in class-A air space to increase fairly significantly.
SCHAEFER: But the dispute with controllers remains front and center. When the House recently passed an FAA reauthorization bill, it demanded that both parties go back to the bargaining table. But the White House says the president will veto any bill that requires the FAA to renegotiate workforce issues.
For NPR News, I'm Karen Schaefer.
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