This is not a scene from the air traffic control tower at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Not yet, anyway.

No, Thanks, I'll Take the Bus

Keep this in mind next time you fly: The Federal Aviation Administration is getting rid of air traffic controllers--by creating salary caps for vets, offering lower pay to rookies, mandating a dress code that bans jeans and T-shirts, cutting back on vacation and sick leave and eliminating contractual protections "against being kept working on a radar screen controlling traffic for more than two hours without a break," reports The New York Times this morning. The story carries a Dallas dateline, since the FAA's actions, the result of an impasse over contract negotiation with air traffic controllers earlier this month, are "producing tension, anger and occasional shows of defiance among controllers" at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. That can't be good.

The FAA's claiming you don't need as many air traffic controllers here as you did in the past, because "traffic is down in the Dallas region"; the idea is to "staff to traffic." But the Michael Conely, president of the union local at DFW, tells The Times that with the FAA's new restrictions, "You can't staff all the positions properly...You are on position longer, watching more airplanes, and it becomes a tired-eye syndrome."

This is kinda bad timing: Among the reasons cited for the August 27 crash of Comair Flight 5191 in Lexington, Kentucky, in which all but one of the 50 people onboard died, was improper actions taken by the lone air traffic controller on duty. And while DFW will never reduce its staffing levels to a single controller, it's still making folks in the tower plenty pissed. Says The Times:

"At the radar office that controls planes around Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and at a cluster of other airports where staffing levels are falling fast, unhappiness is usually not visible in the darkened radar centers where they work, except when it is glaringly obvious.

Like the recent day when a controller here went to work in lime green pants and a clashing brown jacket, along with hair dyed blue, to protest a new dress code. Elsewhere, male controllers have rebelled by going to work in dresses...

The controllers, many with two decades in positions in which they are entrusted with thousands of lives, say the changes make them feel trivialized. A cartoon that controllers circulated by e-mail shows a radar screen with two converging airplanes and a picture of a man's sneaker, banned under the new dress code. The caption asks which should be the priority."

In related news, USA Today's reporting, well, today that "the nation's airports face a looming crisis in their ability to screen checked luggage for bombs that will require billions of dollars to avert." That comes from a Congressional report that says airports don't have enough screeners, are using lousy bomb detectors and are seeing increased traffic that's rendering airports less safe than they were supposed to be post-September 11, 2001. Says Jim Crites, DFW's operations chief, in USA Today, "there is no more room" in airports for additional luggage scanners, "and yet you have more demand coming on."

I believe it was Steve McCrosky who said it best: Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue. --Robert Wilonsky

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