Sunday, September 23, 2007

Politics and More Thoughts/Rants About the FAA

Politically speaking, for better or worse as long as I can remember I've had a conservative tilt. I can recall voting for Nixon in my 6th-grade classroom's pretend election. I don't have any idea what it was about the man which had me pulling for him. Maybe I considered him an underdog as he was running against Hubert Humphrey from my home state and most everyone was rooting for the local guy. Humphrey lost the popular vote by only a few hundred thousand but the Electoral College results gave a clear victory to Nixon. Nixon would eventually leave the office in disgrace while my eyes were opened to the world of politics and corruption.

Politics is seldom win-win. There's always a price to be paid as you trade away one thing for another. Should I vote for the guy who will place conservative judges to the Supreme Court or do I vote for who I know will be the better choice for my job? In the last election, it came down to that. I got my conservative judges appointed with the election of Bush but I also got a union-busting president and I didn't want that. Kerry would have been the polar opposite in that he would have given us a much more liberal court while being a friend to unions.

I'm looking forward to seeing Bush gone. I've seen a side to him I didn't want to believe was there...maybe it's the dry drunk side which people occasionally make reference to. His appointments to run the FAA (my employer) rule through fear and intimidation and at some point you have to accept that they act at the direction of Bush and those with whom he surrounds himself. I'd like to think that Bush is out of the loop when it comes to much of what we're going through as Air Traffic Controllers but the more I learn the more I realize that he sets the tone and direction.

FAA Management operates with impunity while trampling over workers rights. It's a total smack-down of our union, Natca, and there isn't any end in sight. I have so little respect for anybody within management. We have controllers who were here 26 years ago during the days of Patco (the former Controllers' union which went on strike in August 1981) who say that these are much darker times than then.

There is a strong argument to be made that management is trying to force out higher seniority controllers, the ones who draw the most pay and replace them with new, cheaper controllers. I hate to use my blog to rant about work but that's sort of why I have a express my feelings...both good and bad.

In my frustration this past week I wrote a letter to Bobby Sturgell, the FAA Administrator. I have no illusions that my words will have any impact on the man but it was something I had to do. Here's my letter...

Mr. Sturgell, 9-17-2007

When Mr. Chew took the helm of the ATO he said he wanted to flatten the agency and open communications from top to bottom. I can only hope that he was successful.

I’ve been an Air Traffic Controller with the FAA since 1982. Nearly 26 years with the agency and I’ve got an exemplary record to stand on. Please don’t assume that I’m just another shrill Natca voice and discount my words. I take pride in the job I do and the effort I put into training new controllers who will someday replace me. I’ve never in my career been more disappointed in the direction the FAA is headed. What’s become of the agency I used to be proud and happy to serve? There was a time not long ago when management and controllers worked together to solve problems. Those days are sadly gone.

The FAA desperately needs leadership which is focused on creating a cohesive workplace. That should be our number one goal before we consider any of the other Flight Plan goals for without cohesiveness meeting our other goals becomes much more difficult.

It’s frustrating for me to watch as divisive tactics take their toll on the workforce. This week will see Rick Day and Joe Miniace visit Los Angeles ARTCC to congratulate them on their facility upgrade to ATC12. What monetary benefit will the workforce see from the upgrade? Zero. What will management see from the upgrade? I believe an additional 6.7% pay raise. Is it really necessary for Rick Day and Joe Mniace to waste taxpayer dollars to fly across the country to flaunt the new pay raise for management? No doubt the upgrade was put off until such a time when the people doing the real work of handling the traffic could not partake in the fruits of their labor. Sad. Their trip to the Palmdale facility is nothing more than a poke in the eye to the real workers who did the heavy lifting to make this happen. Is this what you call leadership?

I have concerns about the double standard, the injustice between management and controllers with respect to pay. We were told that costs needed to be brought under control. I was fine with that. Please explain for me how it is that the people in the trenches who put their careers on the line day in and day out are the ones carrying the load for cost savings while people in management watching from a safe distance continue to enjoy financial gains and are contributing zero monetarily in the FAA’s effort to contain costs.

I spoke with my facility manager today and he told me that bureaucracy and red tape had gotten in the way of instituting a pay cap for management. I’d like to believe that Garry wouldn’t lie to me but I have to wonder if Garry actually believed what he told me. How difficult can it be to do for management what was done to controllers? After all, management had no trouble hitching their wagon to Pay Re-class. Why the delay when there’s a change in direction?

As an aside I’d like to say that being a controller is not an easy job despite what you’re being told by former controllers who are now in management. Truth be told, the vast majority of our management ranks are filled with men and women who were marginal controllers and sought the shelter of a supervisor desk. Working traffic wasn’t for them. I’m fine with that but I’m not fine with having the work I do denigrated by those who couldn’t do it and now look down their nose at those of us who remain. I could go on with much more in regard to this topic but I’ll leave it at this—I’m in search of fairness, Mr. Sturgell.

I’ve read your bio and I must say that it’s quite impressive. We’re both former military men. I recall the movie, We Were Soldiers Once. Did you see it? There was a riveting point in the movie where Mel Gibson (playing the part of Colonel Harold Moore about to lead his troops into battle) says, "But I swear this, before you and before Almighty God. When we go into battle, I will be the first to step onto the field and I will be the last to step off. And I will leave no one behind. Dead or alive we will all come home, together." That, Mr. Sturgell, is leadership. What we have parading as leadership in the FAA is nothing more than juvenile vindictiveness, fear, and intimidation. Not a desirable combination for bringing out the best in people.

I implore you to do what is right. Begin by treating us with respect. Show us that you really believe what it is you want us to believe, that we have to get costs under control. Leading by example is a powerful tool. Please use it. If a pay cap is good enough for the men and women in the trenches actually doing the job then it ought to be good enough for management. Lead by example. That’s all I’m asking.


Kevin Gilmore

Friday, September 7, 2007

Pondering Infinity and Failed FAA Management

Random thought time.

When I was a kid I used to lay awake in bed at night and try to get my head around the idea of infinity. I used to imagine an ever-extending universe where there was absolutely no end to it. Or I'd ponder the idea of forever, where there is never an end to time. How can it be that time will go on forever? The thoughts these ideas evoke can easily overwhelm my limited capacity.

One of the ways to visualize infinity is to imagine a center point within a circle with lines extending out every degree for 360 degrees to the edge of the circle. Fill the space in between each line with more lines extending from the center until you can't draw anymore. Now, extend the lines beyond the edge of the circle and you'll see that more space develops between the lines as they get further from the center. Continue imagining this process over and over again and you get the idea. Infinity blows my mind.

Random thoughts end here.

When I began working for the FAA in the spring of '82 my starting wage was something over $16,000 per year. The first few months of my employment had me at the academy for Air Traffic Control in Oklahoma City. While there I was also paid in addition to my base pay a per diem of around $35 per day. This money was to be used for living expenses while I was away from home. It was a generous amount which easily covered my expenses.

Fast forward 25 years to today and quite a lot has changed, for the worse. Academy students are unbelievably being paid less than I was when I was there, at a rate just under $16,000 plus they're not receiving any per diem. It would be difficult enough to find a place to stay on a salary so small but being as they're away from home temporarily they still have their primary residence to pay for.

Imagine trying to support a family as a newly hired air traffic controller.

As of less than a year ago, the FAA was requiring controller candidates to have a college degree. Most students spent between $70,000-100,000 for their education—an education which is very limited in scope and would be difficult to do anything with but air traffic control. So, not only are they not paying new controllers a livable wage but these new hires are also saddled with enormous debt because FAA management believed a college education should be a requirement. Well, they used to anyway. As of a few months ago FAA management has decided that a college degree really isn't all that necessary as the available pool of college grads with an ATC degree has all but dried up with so many declining the job and moving on because of the imposed contract.

It sucks to be one of those who invested several years and tens of thousands of dollars only to be told that what they'd done wasn't actually necessary and then to add salt to their wounds tell them that the job for which they were told they'd be paid $100k and more per year will only top out at $40-80k. So many potential controllers have turned down controllers' jobs due to poor pay that the FAA has had to resort to hiring whoever they can get.

If you haven't read very deep into my blog you wouldn't know that I'm an air traffic controller and have been since 1982. Up until recently, it's been a very rewarding career. I can't imagine doing anything else. Our union went into contract negotiations with FAA management two years ago. Through negotiations, our union moved 1.9 billion dollars in the FAA's direction over the course of a 5-year contract. The FAA moved zero dollars toward our direction. There was no negotiating on their part. An impasse was declared and new work rules (FAA calls it a contract) were forced on us. It froze controller pay and created a B scale for new hires in addition to many other work rule changes. The FAA said it was all done in an effort to bring costs under control and that controller salaries were breaking the bank. That's fine, I'm listening, but what about management pay? Why has there been no mention of capping management pay when we are an organization top-heavy with management? Imagine what FAA management could do to cut costs had they included themselves in all of this? What happened to leading by example?

I have a trainee at work whose name is Reid. Reid is one of those who paid his dues, literally, by getting the required college degree and is now trying to pay off his $70,000 college loans on his meager pay. He drives a 10-year-old car and rents a room in a house with 2 other guys to try and make ends meet. He doesn't have money for a lot of extras. He was telling me of a talk given to his class in Oklahoma City by one of the heads of enroute air traffic operations. One of the students spoke up and asked this management person (I can't name him for fear of reprisal) if he had taken a pay cut as well. This person said that he didn't do this job for the money. Excuse me, sir, but what sort of an answer to the question was that? This person must be independently wealthy. I do it for the money as does he and everyone else. That's the only reason we show up every day. We do it for the money. Anyway, he went on to tell the class that if they didn't like it they could leave. Imagine if the entire class had gotten up and headed for the exits at a time when we're desperate to get new controllers into the system? But they are walking out of the auditorium so to speak. They're turning this job down in droves and the FAA is scrambling to try and fill their seats. I don't wish them any luck at all. They need to live with what their vindictiveness and shortsightedness have produced. Academy students are no longer allowed to pose questions about pay to management when they come to speak. I suppose they thought it unfair to allow questions they can't answer.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Tattooed and a Night of Music

We've been watching L.A. Ink and Miami Ink on The Learning Channel lately. The shows chronicle the inner workings of the tattoo business. They make for interesting viewing as you get a look into the lives of people as they go about having their bodies tattooed and the reasons for their specific tattoo. Often times there is a personal tragedy or triumph which led to their choices. No doubt there are those who get tattooed on a whim but I don't think that would make for good tv.

When I was in the Navy we'd occasionally pull into port in Hong Kong while cruising the western Pacific. There was a tattoo parlor called Pinky's and if a tattoo was in your future that was the place to go. I'm not sure that many if any of the tattoos my shipmates got were born out of tragedy or triumph. I think it was more the thing to do after a night spent drinking. I never saw it but there was a Marine on our ship who had his penis tattooed with red and white stripes so that it looked like a barber's pole. How is that even possible? A friend of mine, Garry Ingles had a squirrel tattooed on each inner thigh. On one thigh the squirrel was running up his leg and on the other thigh, the squirrel was running down his leg with a nut in its mouth. I'm sure it seemed like a great idea at the time but I have to believe Garry lived to regret that tattoo.

A few years ago we were kicking around the streets of Stillwater when we stumbled upon a tattoo shop off the main street. We went inside and began perusing the many tattoos on the walls and in books. I'm not sure which one of us came up with the idea but the three of us agreed that we would someday return and get Christian fish tattoos. We couldn't do it then because Rachel had to be 16. Rachel even drew a fish on her ankle to see how it would look.

Every once in a long while somebody would mention the plans about getting our tattoos and we'd agree that as soon as Rachel turned 16 we'd follow through. As Rachel's 16th birthday grew closer she was bringing the idea up more and more to make sure we were still going to get them. She turned 16 last week and it was now time to make good on all those spoken intentions. And so we did.

We found Archangel Customz tattoo shop 10 minutes from home. Tammy and I stopped in to give the shop a once over. Not that we knew what we were looking for but maybe it was more of a chance to talk ourselves out of it. I don't know. We showed Viper our little drawing of a fish and some color shading Rachel had added to it. He told us that the color shading wouldn't hold up over the years and that he wouldn't do it. I asked if the outline could be done in a color other than black. Viper in so many words told us that we'd get what he'd give us. Okay.

Rachel was excited on the other end of the phone as we called ahead to tell her to be ready as were picking her up to get our tattoos. Viper had each of us in his chair for no more than 5 minutes. It's a bit of an odd feeling after having it done and the realization sets in that it really is permanent. No regrets. Here's mine

The meaning behind our tattoos is to make a simple statement that we're followers of Christ trying to walk his walk, not that we don't trip up at times. I had my tattoo colored red to symbolize Christ's blood. A funny aside about the color I used in mine. We agreed that we'd do our tattoos the same with color in the center. I went first and when I came out the first thing out of Tammy and Rachel's mouth was, 'I'm not going to color the inside of mine'. Thanks a lot. I like the way it looks even if you don't. 'Oh no, I/we like the way it looks...I/we just want ours plain.'

We were a bit worried about what Rachel's dad would say when he saw her tattoo. He was fine with it.

Tammy and I went to an outdoor concert at Midway Stadium in St. Paul Saturday night. Collective Soul was fronting for Counting Crows. The weather couldn't have been better but we could've done without the 4 drunks behind us during Collective Soul's set. Totally obnoxious. They were spilling beer on people and falling into people. There was no reasoning with them although we tried as did others. One of them tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'we're just trying to enjoy the show'. I responded with 'so are we'. You expect a little of that but these guys were way over the top. We moved back a bit for the Counting Crows set and enjoyed the show much more.

I'd heard from a friend that Adam Duritz has a reputation for being drunk on stage and giving an underwhelming performance for CC but that wasn't at all the case Saturday night. He put on a great show and we both agreed that we'd like to see them again.

I wasn't fully prepared for the show. When I took out my digital camera it wouldn't turn on as I'd forgotten to replace the battery after recharging it. I lifted the photo of Adam from my video camera.

Here's a couple videos I shot from the show for my YouTube account. Collective Soul and Counting Crows.