It’s happened again: In the middle of the night of March 22-23, two passenger aircraft with more than 250 people on board called into the control tower at Reagan Airport just outside Washington, DC, to get landing instructions and nobody answered, not even “voice mail.” The same thing happened about a year ago.

The airplanes were finally able to land, but it was a dangerous situation. Reagan, which used to be called National Airport, sits right on the Virginia bank of the Potomac River, incredibly close to important sites in Washington DC, including the Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington Monuments, the White House, the Capitol and the Pentagon. Although there is little air traffic in the wee hours, the airplanes could have crashed into equipment or ground crews, or ended up in the river.

Last year, says the Washington Post, the same thing happened. In that case the person in the control tower left his post temporarily and forgot to take his electronic access card with him. When he tried to get back into the control room, there was no way for him to do it. Now authorities claim that the person in the tower snoozed off. He has been suspended and ordered to take a drug test.

But this is not a story about some worker goofing off on the job, or sloppy work habits. That is the old scapegoating scam once more. It is, rather, a story about the legacy of Ronald Reagan. It seems that for the late night shift Reagan Airport has only one person working in the control tower. This isn’t some little rural airport, which services Piper Cubs and crop dusters. This is one of the most important airports in the country. And one suspects that this staffing pattern is characteristic of our whole air traffic control system.

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood deplored the situation, and said that he would make sure that from now on there are two people staffing the Reagan tower during the night shift.

All around the country, air traffic controllers have been complaining that their work loads are so ridiculously heavy that they live in constant fear that they will miss some clue and that a catastrophe will result, as two packed jetliners crash into each other in midair. Such dicey situations are sharply increasing.

Do you remember Ronald Reagan and the air traffic controllers’ strike of 1981? That was the year Reagan destroyed PATCO, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers’ Organization, which had gone on strike to get improvements in wages and also in working conditions that impinged on the safety of the public. Reagan invoked the hated Taft-Hartley Law to break the strike, and more than 11,000 air traffic controllers around the country lost their careers and livelihoods. They were replaced by hastily recruited and trained scabs.

This was one of the first major attacks by the federal government against the labor rights of public service workers. The nationwide attacks against government workers and their unions, which we see today, are the long-term follow up to Reagan’s brutal action against PATCO.

For a long time when one would fly into Reagan Airport from some other part of the country, the pilots and other air crew members would continue to call it “National Airport,” possibly to avoid jinxing everything by mentioning Ronnie’s name. Now Ronnie’s political offspring are trying to do the same with all categories of public service workers.

Had Ronald Reagan, whose name now adorns this airport, not destroyed the union of air traffic controllers in 1981, these things would not be happening. This is yet another reason why we must fight against the current wave of attacks against the unions that represent government workers.




Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.