Reagan aviation statue stirs up memories of 1981 air traffic controllers strike

Whitney Wild Contributor
Font Size:

ARLINGTON, Va. — Former President Ronald Reagan was immortalized Tuesday at Reagan National Airport by a nine-foot bronze statue overlooking the entry to an airport that has already borne his name for more than a decade.

In a ceremony attended by Reagan-era dignitaries, the statue was dedicated as a towering reminder of the Gipper’s aviation legacy — which included firing virtually all of America’s air traffic controllers, mandating LED lights on aircraft walkways, and revolutionizing air travel by deregulating the airlines.

Reagan transportation secretary Elizabeth Dole and her deputy James Burnley were in attendance and recalled how significant Reagan was in laying the foundations for modern airline travel.

Dole said Reagan “just did what he had to do” in firing the striking air traffic controllers in August 1981, just months after taking office. It was a change that Burnley said was for the best.

“Secretary Dole and I arrived 18 months after the strike,” he said. “We rebuilt that system in a way that permitted the country’s air traffic control system to be safe and continue to grow.”

Not everyone, however, shares a romantic image of Reagan as an aviation hero.

Georgetown University professor Jim McCartin said Reagan’s handling of the air traffic controllers’ strike invited danger for the flying public.

“Though no major airborne collision was attributed [to Reagan’s decisions], the system operated with a smaller margin for error in the months after the firing,” McCartin said. “Consumer watchdog groups, such as Ralph Nader’s, for example, made the allegation that Reagan made the system more risky.”

Valarie Trimarchi, a daughter of a Pittsburgh steelworker, was passing through the airport during the unveiling. She said her recollection of what Reagan did is more like a scary flashback.

“It was devastating,” she said, “not only to the airline industry, but to labor in general.“You know, everyone loves Reagan, but they forget that he raised the debt ceiling 18 times.”

Nine months into the Great Communicator’s centennial year, more odes will surely be coming. Reagan memorials are popping up from London to Budapest. The 900-pound statue was commissioned by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and financed through private funding.