Pushing Boundaries While 'Pushing Tin'

Feb. 16, 2006 — -- The world of air traffic controllers is high-pressure, high-stress and very male.

But according to current and former women air traffic controllers, it's also rife with sexual harassment, verbal abuse and overall boorishness -- which can be dangerous.

In 1988, a congressional subcommittee investigated claims of widespread sexual harassment of women air traffic controllers.

"I walk through a gauntlet every day, and that's down the row," air traffic controller Diana Mulka told "20/20" in September 1994. "Comments are made. Sometimes it's just looks, but it's a very intimidating situation."

Another air traffic controller, Olivet Smith, told "20/20" during the 1994 show that she experienced similar treatment.

"So I'm sitting there, working very heavy traffic, and all of a sudden I feel a hand -- not on my thigh, right in my crotch," Smith said. "In an instant, I had to make an instant decision: Should I address this male and try to fight him off or should I continue to work airplanes? I chose to work the airplanes."

Seventy-five percent of its employees are male. The 1999 film "Pushing Tin" portrayed the world of air traffic controllers as high-stress and macho -- but fun, and fratty. A sort of "Animal House" in a control tower.

But air traffic controllers deal with life or death decisions, and that's what makes allegations of abuse or harassment on that job potentially more consequential than other hostile work environments.

A Dangerous Situation

Last Friday, Michelle May, an air traffic controller at the Phoenix International Airport, quit her job, fed up with a workplace and supervisors she deems emotionally abusive.

"It's just a general culture of hostility," May told ABC News.

And just as was the case nearly 20 years ago, May said the Federal Aviation Administration tolerated harassment -- which, she warns, is dangerous.

"Instead of keeping in mind the separation between the airplanes," she said, "you were more worried about, 'Oh my God, what is this supervisor doing behind me?'"

The FAA says its workplace is safe for both employees and the public. Ventris C. Gibson, assistant administrator for human resources with the FAA, told ABC News that air traffic controllers are highly skilled and have an "uncanny and feverish zeal for excellence when controlling traffic, especially on the safety lines."

"Our environment is not at all one that is inducive of harassment or sexual harassment of any kind," Gibson said, adding that managers and supervisors are "fully committed to ensure that our workplace is safe."

But Brigitte Still, who worked for the FAA for more than 30 years, feels differently. In 2002, she and two colleagues at the FAA's Washington Air Traffic Control Center in Leesburg, Va., filed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints against the agency.

"I experienced the control to be very charged with very volatile language, explicit language, sexually explicit language at times directed toward me," Still said. "Many females are very afraid to speak up because they get ridiculed if they do speak up ... it appeared to me sexual harassment was not taken serious in that facility."

All three women alleged that, after they complained, the harassment got worse and that management did not adequately address the problem.

"Throughout my career," Still said, "sexual harassment has been a daily occurrence in the FAA, within the FAA."

While denying that this is in any way a major problem, Gibson said handling of such situations has improved since the FAA has increased education, reinforced its policies and better trained managers.

"If there is any employee who perceives that they are the victim of unlawful discrimination like sexual harassment or a hostile working environment, let me know," she said. "They never have to fear retribution, reprisal or retaliation."

Union Upset

Not all of the harassment alleged is sexual in nature -- much of it describes a generally hostile work environment.

But the percentage of women in the general population who report being sexually harassed on the job in the previous 12 months is 7 percent, according to a 2002 General Social Survey. For women employees of the FAA, according to an internal survey in 2003, that number is 14 percent.

For some reason, in its 2005 survey, the FAA stopped asking female employees if they'd been sexually harassed, which alarms the air traffic controllers union.

"It's pretty glaring to see in a survey, where you've asked this one question year after year, and then you'd suddenly stop asking," said Ruth Marlin, executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "The only reason not to ask is you are afraid of the answer."

The air traffic controllers union, which is in the midst of heated renegotiations with the FAA, complains that this is the fault of supervisors and the organization.

"The problem is that, from the administrator on down, they've created an environment of employee intimidation and employee harassment," Marlin said. "When the administrator says, 'No matter what you do, there will be no consequences. We will defend your actions. We will condone it.' And this creates that culture where those that would abuse women in the workplace have safe haven to do so."

But aviation experts caution that supervisors and the FAA management are not the only ones responsible -- that controllers in the union have also been a problem.

Gibson agreed. "They are liable as much as every other federal employee," she said. "I would be heartstruck, saddened, appalled to know if there is a facility rep or any other shop steward or anyone in an environment like that who was aware that such behavior exists and did not take [action] to bring it to a manager's attention."

But some say that doesn't always work. Anne Whiteman, a controller at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, complained about a group of male controllers -- some nicknamed the T-boys, "T" for testosterone -- whose behavior nearly caused many accidents.

Whiteman said she watched two controllers play a game of chicken with a pair of jetliners -- while a supervisor laughed.

"When it got to the point it endangered safety or endangered the flying public, I should say, I indeed pointed fingers," she said.

Whiteman tried to work within the FAA system, but she insists her complaints were ignored. So she went public. Her allegations that near-misses were prevalent were vindicated by a special counsel investigation but she says at the time there was no investigation into the overall hostile work environment, which disappointed her profoundly.

"For many years, I stayed within the system and I kept thinking somebody's got to do something," she said, breaking into tears. "This is unbelievable. This is appalling. Somebody's got to do something. Someone has to care."

Has Whiteman ever been sexually harassed? She says she's been with the FAA so long it's tough to distinguish among all the different kinds of misbehaviors. "So much is condoned by the FAA, I don't know," Whiteman says. "What is accepted here is not accepted anywhere else."

Too Late to Help

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled in some cases that the FAA failed to do its job.

Joanne Boyer, a New York air traffic controller, also complained to the EEOC about a hostile work environment. Hers included tampons scattered in her locker, job discrimination and a threatening letter containing obscene and sexist language.She also says she had a male controller play chicken with a plane she was trying to guide. According to the EEOC ruling in her favor, "a fellow controller attempted to disrupt her aircraft by intentionally directing a large jet to descend directly behind her private aircraft."

The EEOC ruled that Boyer "was subjected to sex-based harassment and that the incidents were sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment." In 2004 the EEOC ruled against the FAA, saying "the agency failed to prove that it took appropriate corrective action."

Phoenix air traffic controller Linda Petersen was frequently verbally abused by a male supervisor who was defended by the FAA, her family and friends said. In a phone conversation, her father, Leroy Petersen, recalled how bad it got for her.

"He called her some names we can't say," Petersen said. "Just made it difficult for her in the workplace."

Peterson's father says management could have helped her some by helping her change shifts to get away from that particular supervisor. It got so stressful, friends and family said, the woman her sister describes as very strong changed -- and eventually took her own life.

"The day that she took it, she'd had an extremely stressful night at work," her father said. "They had a meeting in the morning and they did not seem to give her any backup at all in what had happened. And she walked off the job, and that was the last anyone ever talked to her."

When she did walk off, her father says, fellow employees did call a supervisor and said she had even mentioned taking her own life as she walked off.

Bob Marks, regional vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said more should have been done.

"If the FAA had taken prompt action and timely action to deal with the situation when it was first brought to their attention," Marks said, "then perhaps we wouldn't be here talking about Linda's tragic passing."

Gibson said the FAA is "very saddened by Linda Petersen's demise," adding that the agency is also upset by the other women's allegations. But she said the incidents are not indicative of the FAA's operations in general.

"I stand by every air traffic controller," Gibson said. "I stand behind their professionalism, and I am sure that they are aware that if there are instances such as some of the cases you mentioned, they're going to bring it to our attention and we're going to address it."

The EEOC ultimately found in Petersen's favor and against the FAA.

The FAA says that supervisor was disciplined and moved to a non-supervisory job. But he continues to work for the agency. The FAA says they have instituted new programs to eliminate such problems.