The US Is Facing a Growing Air Safety Crisis. We Have Ronald Reagan to Thank for It.

The US’s air traffic control workforce is overstretched, which has led to a big rise in airplane “near misses.” The crisis has roots in Ronald Reagan’s crushing of the 1981 PATCO strike and in the neoliberal attack on public services he helped spearhead.

Members of PATCO, the air traffic controllers union, hold hands and raise their arms as their deadline to return to work passes, August 5, 1981. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

On March 15, 2023, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) held a “safety summit” in McLean, Virginia, gathering more than two hundred “safety leaders” from across American aviation to discuss “ways to enhance flight safety.” What prompted the unusual summit was, by the FAA’s own admission, a “string of recent safety incidents, several of which involved airplanes coming too close together during takeoff or landing.”

As the New York Times recently reported, such events have continued since the McLean summit, including one on August 11 in which a private plane nearly landed on top of a Southwest Airlines flight in Phoenix. Analyzing a database maintained by NASA that records confidential reports filed by pilots and air traffic controllers, the Times found roughly three hundred near misses in the most recent twelve-month period and evidence that the number of such reports filed have doubled over the past ten years.

One contributing factor to the growing concerns about safety is a shortage of air traffic controllers. A recent internal study by the inspector general of the US Department of Transportation found that twenty of twenty-six critical facilities (77 percent of them) are staffed below the FAA’s 85-percent threshold. That includes the vital New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility, which manages one of the most complex airspaces in the world and is currently at 54 percent of its staffing target (which is jointly determined by the FAA and the controllers’ union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association). Less than 1 percent of FAA facilities are currently meeting 100 percent of their staffing targets.

According to the inspector general, the FAA “lacks a plan” to address the staffing crisis. To meet its needs while short-staffed, the agency has been requiring controllers to work overtime. The Times reports that some have already logged more than four hundred hours of extra time in 2023.

In many ways, this brewing crisis recalls the situation that existed in the FAA more than a half century ago, when overstretched air traffic controllers struggled to deal with burgeoning air traffic at the dawn of jet travel. Then, as in recent months, worries about the possibilities of catastrophic accidents were on the rise. The roots of this current crisis, however, can be traced back to the Reagan administration.

Today’s Controller Staffing Crisis and the Early Days of Air Traffic Control

Many of the incidents that provoked the FAA’s “safety summit” have been widely reported:

  • On January 13, an American Airlines plane crossed a runway in front of an oncoming Delta Air Lines plane when its pilot misunderstood an air traffic controllers’ direction, forcing the Delta flight to suddenly abort its takeoff.
  • On January 23, a Kamaka Air cargo flight came within 1,173 feet of a United Airlines flight arriving from Denver when both arrived almost simultaneously at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Hawaii.
  • Less than two weeks later, on February 4, a FedEx cargo plane was forced to abort its landing at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Texas after a departing Southwest Airlines flight was mistakenly cleared for takeoff on the same runway.
  • On February 16, an Air Canada Rouge flight and an American Airlines flight were mistakenly cleared to land almost simultaneously on the same runway in Sarasota, Florida.
  • On February 27, a Learjet took off without clearance on a runway at Boston’s Logan Airport on which a JetBlue flight was about to touch down, forcing the JetBlue pilot to abort the landing and put the jet into a steep climb to avoid a collision.
  • On March 7, a Republic Airways/American Eagle flight mistakenly taxied across a runway that a United Airlines Airbus bound for Chicago had just been cleared to take off from.

More than forty-five thousand flights occur daily in the United States — by far the busiest national airspace in the world. By any measure, until recently the FAA has long supervised the world’s safest airspace, especially when one considers how rare accidents are given the volume of flights. The last commercial airline accident causing fatalities happened in 2009. But as the incidents above suggest, this system that has functioned so well over the years might be starting to fray. Any one of the recent incidents could have resulted in a collision with the potential for staggering loss of life.

The FAA itself was created in response to an accident — a midair collision over the Grand Canyon in 1956 that killed 128. Launched in 1958, the agency’s first priority was to bring order to the nation’s haphazard system of air traffic control.

It struggled to do so. The FAA’s air traffic control workforce, recruited almost exclusively from the ranks of military veterans who had learned to use radar in the service, was overworked and under-resourced from the outset. The agency’s problems became clear on December 16, 1960, when another midair collision occurred, this one over New York City, killing 134.

The New York catastrophe triggered a reaction among a group of young air traffic controllers who had been complaining about their equipment and short staffing. They began to organize. Led by two controllers, Mike Rock and Jack Maher, who had been working on the morning of the accident, the workers began to demand improved radar and an end to forced overtime. By 1962, they could draw on President John F. Kennedy’s Executive Order 10988, which introduced a limited form of union recognition and collective bargaining to the federal government. Under the umbrella of that executive order, Rock, Maher, and their coworkers worked to build a union.

Their efforts were spurred on by a string of other accidents that highlighted the problems with the system. Indeed, the FAA witnessed an average of twelve fatal air accidents annually between 1962 and 1966. Then in July 1967, a Piedmont Airlines Boeing 727 and a twin-engine Cessna collided over Hendersonville, North Carolina, killing eighty-two people.

Controllers had seen enough. By January 1968, they had formed a national union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). Its creation marked a turning point. With PATCO’s formation, controllers got a collective voice, and they used that voice effectively in subsequent years, lobbying Congress and FAA management to improve a system in crisis, pushing for innovations such as the NASA-administered program for reporting near accidents. Over the next decade. PATCO’s influence helped improve safety substantially.

Ronald Reagan and the PATCO Strike

But controllers’ morale still suffered. While their agitation helped make the system safer, their pay began to lag behind the double-digit inflation of the 1970s, and the stress of their jobs took a toll on the controllers in the busiest facilities. Like other federal employees, they were not allowed by law to negotiate over their compensation, benefits, or the length of their workweek. During the Carter administration — which deregulated the airlines, cut taxes, and cut back funding for some social welfare programs — their frustration grew to the point that PATCO decided to endorse Jimmy Carter’s challenger in the 1980 election, Ronald Reagan. Reagan had promised that, if elected, he would work to address controllers’ concerns.

The Reagan-PATCO alliance was infamously short lived. When Reagan, the former president of the Screen Actors Guild, refused to meet demands that PATCO members considered essential during their negotiations in the early months of his presidency, the union struck on August 3, 1981.

PATCO’s action was illegal under federal law. It grew from years of frustrating relations with FAA management, and disappointed expectations regarding what controllers’ believed they had been promised by Reagan. They decided to strike, engaging in a form of mass civil disobedience that the union’s leaders had concluded was their only option.

What happened next planted one of the seeds of today’s air safety crisis. Reagan gave the striking controllers a forty-eight-hour ultimatum: return to work or be fired and permanently replaced. When more than eleven thousand (approximately 70 percent of the controller workforce) defied his warning, Reagan fired them on August 5, and the FAA began efforts to permanently replace them.

Never before had the government faced the prospect of training a new, highly technical workforce from scratch in such a short time. Some moderate Republicans, like Representative Guy Molinari of New York, urged Reagan to hire back controllers who had not been leaders of the walkout, warning of the long-term cost and lingering consequences of replacing all the strikers. But once he issued his ultimatum, Reagan and his hard-line advisers believed that sticking to the mass firing would send a message to domestic and foreign observers alike that he was not a president to be trifled with. So even though public opinion favored rehiring most of the strikers, Reagan never relented.

Reagan’s decision to ban all strikers meant that it took years for the system to come back to its prestrike staffing levels. Seven years later, the vital New York TRACON was still operating at only 80 percent of its target staffing. Even more important for the long run: the huge group of replacements hired in the first five years after the strike would itself become problematic. That massive bubble of new hires meant that these replacement workers would one day near retirement within a few years of each other, and when new hires were made to replace them, the pattern would be repeated again. Ever since, the Times recently noted, “there have been waves of departures as controllers become eligible for retirement,” and the FAA has struggled to keep pace.

The FAA requires air traffic controllers to retire at age fifty-six. It does not hire new recruits over the age of thirty-one in order to ensure that controllers can have careers of at least twenty-five years, recognizing that the first few years of a controller’s development will involve closely supervised on-the-job training. Developmental controllers train for between two and four years, with certification for specific air space positions at certain high-density facilities taking up to two years of specialized training.

These constraints, which exist to ensure safety, make filling the slots of air traffic controllers a recurrent challenge for the FAA. The loss of a senior controller to retirement doesn’t just create a new slot to fill; it also deprives a facility of a seasoned veteran who can mentor the training of a developmental controller.

The Corrosive Influence of Reagan’s “Nine Most Terrifying Words”

The long-term impact of Reagan’s firing of the PATCO strikers isn’t the only troubling legacy he left to our system of air traffic travel. Although the era of austerity began under Carter, it was Reagan who helped popularize and establish a contemptuous attitude toward government as policy orthodoxy.

At a press conference in 1986, Reagan famously quipped, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’” In a nutshell, that pithy line summed up the ideology of the neoliberal revolution that Reagan helped to lead. Perhaps the greatest measure of his success is that this view also found a home in the Democratic Party (as Bill Clinton made clear when he declared in his 1996 State of the Union that “the era of Big Government is over.”) Almost forty years later, the United States still struggles with the anti-government animus behind that comment, a potent political influence Reagan and his neoliberal followers did so much to develop.

Today’s GOP has taken that anti-government sentiment to new extremes that make Reagan look moderate by comparison — like Florida governor Ron DeSantis promising that he would “start slitting throats” in the federal bureaucracy on his first day in office if elected president. But it should not be forgotten that Reagan himself helped lay the groundwork for the likes of DeSantis when he declared in his 1981 inaugural address that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

This same anti-government spirit is currently animating the GOP-led House of Representatives as it threatens to trigger the fourth federal government shutdown in the span of a decade when the federal budget deadline arrives on September 30. It is a spirit that has been inexorably eroding the morale of federal workers for years now. The last government shutdown, which came during Donald Trump’s presidency, lasted thirty-five days. It furloughed 380,000 federal workers, and forced other, “excepted workers,” whose work was considered indispensable — including air traffic controllers — to continue working without pay. One survey later showed that 90 percent of federal employees believed that the shutdown had worsened morale in their already-beleaguered agencies.

Air traffic controllers were among those whose morale suffered most during the Trump shutdown, during which they missed two paychecks. It was therefore no coincidence that they played a crucial role in bringing that shutdown to a screeching halt. When a group of New York controllers called in sick on the morning of the shutdown’s thirty-fifth day, they forced the FAA to issue a ground stop, freezing air traffic around the nation’s busiest and most complex airspace. Within hours the Trump administration caved, and the shutdown was over.

Unfortunately, it won’t be so easy to break the death grip of Reagan-spawned anti-government ideology that has a hold on today’s Republican party. Representative Bob Good, a Virginia Republican, recently remarked that “we should not fear a government shutdown” and asserted that if one occurs, “most Americans won’t even miss [the government].” Even if we manage to avoid another damaging shutdown perpetrated by Good and his allies in the far-right House Freedom Caucus, the likeliest solution to the looming crisis will be a continuing resolution (CR), a device that provides temporary funding for agencies in a new fiscal year until appropriations bills can be approved.

Since the Reagan years, government shutdowns have become more common than on-time budgets, and in order to avoid shutdowns Congress has had to resort to CRs of varying coverage and length in all but three years (1989, 1995, and 1997). Yet the problem of government by CR is that it undermines the ability of agencies to plan efficiently. In the specific case of the FAA, the prospect of another shutdown or a string of patchwork CRs will further inhibit its ability to address the personnel shortage that now afflicts many of our most vital air traffic control facilities and impede the agency’s response to the problems it acknowledged in its March 15 air safety summit.

There are real dangers far more terrifying than the bogeyman Ronald Reagan cynically conjured with his “nine most terrifying words,” as the overworked, under-equipped air traffic controllers who directed air traffic on the morning of December 16, 1960, when two planes collided in the sky over New York, could testify. Let’s hope that we don’t require the kind of wake-up call that the nation received that cold December day before we address the growing crisis in our system of air travel and finally free ourselves from Reagan’s poisonous neoliberal legacy.