Jeffrey M. Raykovich was 30 years old when President Ronald Reagan fired him and 11,000 other air traffic controllers in the 1981 strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association (PATCO). Like many others, he found a non-aviation job and today works as a designer for an auto manufacturer.
A few months ago, still a young man at 39 and growing tired of his new professional life, he decided he would try to get back into aviation, his first love. He applied to a company in Arlington called SRSA -- for Systems Requirements & Services Associates Inc. -- which has a contract with the government to train air traffic controllers.
Raykovich knew he wasn't eligible for another job with the Federal Aviation Administration. The order by Reagan banishing the fired PATCO controllers is still in effect.
But the reply from SRSA surprised him. He can't work there, either.
"Thank you for your interest," began the letter from SRSA's director of human resources. But "we are unable to hire controllers terminated because of the PATCO strike of 1981 for FAA domestic contracts."
"It took me about two days," Raykovich said. "I just sat and looked at it. I couldn't figure what it meant."
Raykovich then began an odyssey through the bureaucracy, first talking with the company, which told him it was in its contract with the FAA. He said it wasn't his first try to get back into aviation, but it was the first time anyone had told him why they wouldn't hire him. "Most companies were not as forward as SRSA," he said.
At the FAA, he was referred to a procurement specialist who was "very helpful" in setting up calls to other FAA officials, but "most of them didn't tell me much."
In the end, he discovered the company was correct. Right there in FAA Contract DTFA01-89-Y-01020 is a clause saying: "The contractor shall not recruit ex-FAA employees who were dismissed as a result of participation in job actions against the FAA."
Not only was he frozen out of the FAA, he was frozen out of a private company that worked for the FAA.
Robert Buckhorn, an FAA spokesman, said that as long as Reagan's original order remains in effect, the FAA has determined that no ex-controller should be placed in a position to have direct employment contact with current controllers.
"You could see how that would cause a morale problem and be disruptive," he said.
"The contracts are rather small," Buckhorn said. Of 1,200 contracts let so far this year, totaling $8.5 billion, only three contracts worth $202 million include that clause, he said. Those three contracts involve controller training.
Raykovich is one of an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 former controllers who would like to get back into air traffic control and are young enough to do so. Perhaps 500 of the original 11,000 controllers regained their jobs through the civil service appeals process, while others got non-government jobs or went to work for other federal agencies. Under a 1982 revision of his order, Reagan said that former controllers could work for any other agency of government, just not for the FAA.
Repeated moves have been made in Congress to force rehiring the controllers, but none has passed in the face of strong opposition from the Reagan and Bush administrations.
Administration officials warn that allowing the controllers to return would encourage other public employee unions to strike in violation of the law, knowing that they could negotiate a return to work if they were fired. At the time of the PATCO strike, they say, other federal unions were watching closely and some were ready to strike then.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), formed after the demise of PATCO, strongly disagrees that their members would be upset if the former controllers were given a chance to reapply to work side by side with them. The last NATCA convention overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for an end to the PATCO ban.
Some of the PATCO controllers are working as controllers for the Defense Department, in minute-by-minute contact with civilian controllers, NATCA spokesman Tony Dresden said. Others also have constant contact with the current controller force in new jobs as Canadian controllers or in towers at private airports.
"This is just another example of not letting the wounds heal from 1981," Dresden said of Raykovich's experience. "For someone to put a clause like that in a contract strikes us as being mean-spirited."
William Lovett, an SRSA official, said the FAA wrote the requirement into the contract, and "we didn't have anything to say about it."
Lovett, an air traffic control supervisor at Denver during the 1981 strike, said the contract provision had repeatedly blocked FAA contract employment for some of his old friends, particularly in the years immediately after the strike. He said he is surprised no one ever mounted a high-level challenge in court or in the civil service appeals process.
"I thought someone would go up the line with it, but no one ever did," he said.
Would hiring the PATCO controllers for the SRSA contract cause morale problems?
"In some places, who knows?" Lovett said. "There could be a problem. I don't want to jump on that one. . . At some point, the statute of limitations runs out."
Raykovich said he is sure his fight will be unsuccessful because "the government is very tough to fight." He also said he fears his family's privacy will be invaded by raising the issue again, and he asked that his hometown not be disclosed and that no photograph be taken for use with this article.
"Do these guys think we're going to do something to them?" Raykovich said. "What are they afraid of? Are they afraid we might give these guys some ideas?"