After a decade, PATCO striker still seeks rush in control tower

ROGER SIMON l

August 11, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

Mike Finucane got me in more trouble than just about anybody I can remember. He certainly got me more death threats.

Mike Finucane was an air traffic controller and a member of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). On Aug. 3, 1981, PATCO went out on strike and Ronald Reagan fired all 11,000 of its members.

At the time, I thought this was a little harsh. True, the members of PATCO had signed an oath not to strike. But policemen and firemen have signed similar oaths and have gone on strike

repeatedly around the country.

True, the average PATCO member was making $33,000 a year, which certainly did not help their popularity with the public. But the average baseball player was then making $180,000 a year. They went out on strike shortly after the air traffic controllers and nobody hated them.

But air traffic controllers are not baseball players, as they and I found out.

The phone calls and mail I got on the subject were savage. A number of people wanted to shoot the strikers, but only if they could shoot me first.

It is now 10 years later and, in some ways, the air traffic system still has not recovered. While air traffic has increased 30 percent since 1981, there are 2,000 fewer fully trained controllers today than there were back then.

The Federal Aviation Administration says those figures are misleading but admits that its current staffing falls 16 percent short of what it considers full strength.

After he was fired, Mike Finucane became a bartender for a while and then did construction work and then I lost track of him. I located him last week.

And he told me he had become the one thing that Ronald Reagan vowed he would never again become: an air traffic controller.

"I asked my boss about this and he said it was OK to talk to you, but I'm still a little nervous," Finucane said. "I'm an air traffic controller for the U.S. Army. The Defense Department began hiring ex-PATCO guys after the strike. Everybody was quiet about it. The public still hated us."

Don't they still hate you? I asked.

Finucane paused a moment. "Yeah," he said. "I guess they do. They don't consider us as bad as that guy in Milwaukee who cut up all those people. But, yeah, the public still hates us."

Finucane had joined the Air Force right out of high school in 1963 and entered air traffic control training. "My first time?" he said. "Sure I remember it. I was in a control tower in Japan and I was nervous. Very nervous. I was 19 years old, at an airport with combined civilian and military traffic and there is this sergeant standing over me."

And it was scary?

"It was a thrill," Finucane said. "The biggest thrill of my life. And the thrills never stopped. I knew it was what I wanted to do."

When he got out of the Air Force, Finucane immediately signed up to become a civilian air traffic controller. After serving a time in Rochester, N.Y., he had a chance to go to either Kennedy Airport in New York or O'Hare Airport in Chicago.

For him, there was only one choice. "O'Hare was the Big Show," he said. "That's what we called it. The Big Show. Busiest in the world. I admit it, it was an ego trip. In the radar room, all dark except for the glow of the screens, you with 15 to 20 planes under your control. Oh God, I remember some of those days."

Tell me.

"We'd call them Blood Rushes," he said. "The weather is bad, you've got planes everywhere, and the planes would start to get too close and the blood would just rush to your head and you'd break out in this sweat. I'll tell you a story: One day, I had freaking airplanes all over the place. I was buried, really buried, and my supervisor, a great guy named Denny, he comes up behind me and says, 'Lemme take it, lemme take it!' So he took it and it's still a mess and the weather is getting worse and I am sitting there and I feel this rain on me. It's Denny, the sweat is dripping off him and falling on me like freaking rain. Man, those were the days."

Those days ended with the strike. Finucane had been making $46,000 a year by working six-day weeks and lots of overtime. Now he found himself with a picket sign in his hand making nothing.

Did you ever hope that during the strike a plane might crash and they might need you back? I asked. Did you ever hope it just a little?

"Naw," he said. "Maybe a few guys did. But not a lot of us. And I've got to tell you, when that controller put one plane on top of another in Los Angeles a few months ago, remember that?"

On Feb. 1, 34 people were killed when a USAir 737 was directed to land on top of a smaller Sky West jet at Los Angeles International Airport.

"Well, I felt really sorry for that controller," Finucane said. "This is going to bother her forever. I don't think she'll ever go back to the boards."

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