If air traffic controllers at Denver International Airport want to leave the tower for a lunch or dinner break, they have to go on vacation.
Or they can use accumulated personal time.
Otherwise, they have to stay in the 327-foot tower above Concourse C, where their menu choices are a bit limited. Just like airline passengers, controllers can't bring liquids or semisolid food items through security checkpoints.
And a recent edict from the Federal Aviation Administration said controllers can't leave the tower during their shift unless they use vacation or other personal time.
"We call the tower the 'lockdown cafe,"' said Michael Coulter, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association's unit in the DIA tower. "We're under house arrest for eight hours."
Before the recent ruling, controllers could take a short break and take the tower elevator to the food court on
Now, that's not an option.
"Any meal run outside the Denver (air traffic control tower) shall require the use of leave," according to the memo, signed by FAA tower manager Robert Fletcher.
Coulter said the FAA is punishing controllers because the government was unsuccessful in extending employees' workday to 8.5 hours, with an unpaid meal break, during recent labor talks.
"You pay me a lot of money to do a very important job and hand me a lot of responsibility for moving 120,000 passengers through the airport each day, but you won't let me go away for five minutes to get a slice of pizza," said Coulter, a controller for 24 years. "It's bizarre."
Fletcher defended the government's decision to confine controllers to the tower. Air traffic managers and many other government employees work 8.5-
hour days with the unpaid meal break time, he said.
The ruling by FAA management is a "return to compliance" with labor-contract language that says controllers work an eight-hour day, Fletcher said.
"We compensate them to be on-site and immediately recallable." Controllers are "getting paid to eat," he said.
The rules on confinement affect controllers nationwide.
Fletcher said FAA tower managers are accommodating the needs of controllers by offering to haul bulk supplies of drinks that employees want to bring to work.
"There is no lack of liquid refreshment in the tower at any time due to management's ability to transport liquids," Fletcher said. The setup is much like food- supply companies that stock Concourse C's restaurants, he said.
In some cases, controllers who want to bring a lunch or dinner of say, beef stew, can ask their manager to drive from the concourse and pick up the food for transport to the tower, Fletcher added.
Coulter said it is a waste of taxpayers' money for air traffic managers to drive a government vehicle across the airfield to pick up a controller's Thanksgiving leftovers of mashed potatoes and gravy and cranberry sauce.
"Dry turkey will make it (through the checkpoint)," he said.
Last week Coulter questioned why tower controllers can't show their FAA badges at checkpoints to get a waiver of the
"There are many times when our lunches are confiscated by TSA personnel," Coulter wrote in a recent complaint to FAA management.
Nobody gets a waiver at the checkpoints, said Carrie Harmon, the Transportation Security Administration's spokeswoman at DIA.
TSA screeners can bring drinks and lunches to work but only to break rooms located at the checkpoints.
Harmon said that in late September, TSA modified the liquid and gel ban to allow "properly credentialed" employees who work at the airport to bring the items with them through nonpublic access points if they follow proper procedures.
The TSA's ban on liquids and gels coming through checkpoints went into effect in August, after discovery of a terrorist plot in England to take liquid components for bombs on planes.
Meanwhile, Coulter said of FAA management's confining controllers to the tower: "It's really a power struggle; it's not about what's good for the flying public. They're saying, 'I'm in charge."'
Before the new policy, controllers could relieve the tension of handling airplane traffic for two hours at a stretch by leaving the tower for a short walk on the concourse, Coulter said. "We'd call it a 'terminal walk,"' he said.
But now, Coulter said, the new confinement policy just "increases our stress level and fatigue factor."
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