Meet the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS) of Maine

You may not have heard of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS) but the 30 members of PASS in Maine do some of the most critically important work in the state. With PASS represents 11,000 people nationwide who work for the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Defense to ensure that our flight safety rules are followed and pilots and air traffic controllers get the data they need to protect both passengers and people on the ground. PASS is affiliated through the AFL-CIO through it’s affiliation withe Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association.

“Our members do a variety of things,” explained PASS President David J. Spero. “They install, maintain, support and certify air traffic ontrols and national defense equipment. They are also aviation safety inspectors that work in the general commercial aviation industry to make sure airlines are in compliance with federal regulations. They develop flight procedures, perform analyses of a lot of complex aviation systems used in air traffic control and national defense.”

The oldest union the in the FAA, PASS was formed in 1977 just before the passage of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 which codified in law collective bargaining rights that had been previously granted by Executive Order starting in 1962. At the time, the FAA employees were fed up with how poorly management treated them. The catalyst for forming the union was when former PASS President Howard Johannssen was forced to use a fire extinguisher to knock open a door where smoke was emanating at JFK Airport. After the incident, management told him we was receiving a suspension while the air traffic controller who helped him was awarded $500.

The two major FAA service centers where Maine PASS members work are in Portland and Bangor. PASS member Mike Calabrese of Mapleton works remotely out of the Bangor center as a transportation systems specialist, but his office is at the Caribou Air Route Surveillance Radar — a long range radar that provides aircraft position, range and altitude information to Air Traffic Control. It also provides the Department of Defense and other agencies the radar data to support national security and to disrupt the illegal drug trade. 

Originally from Long Island, Calabrese started his career as an airway transportation systems specialist in the Air Force. He got quite a shock when he arrived at Loring Air Force Base in Limestone from Alexandria, Louisiana on New Years Eve in 1992.

“I was wearing cowboy boots and my feet were really cold,” said Calabrese “I realized, I don’t think I brought the right footwear!”

In 1994, the Air Force based closed, but fortunately Calabrese had a new career waiting for him. Former Senator George Mitchell helped pass a mandate that the FAA had to pick up the airspace that Loring Air Force Base covered until it could install a new radar.

“Three guys from the FAA walked into the shop on the base and said, ‘hi, we’re from the FAA at Bangor. We’d like to know if anyone would like to work for the FAA,’” recalled Calabrese. “I couldn’t get out of the chair fast enough.”

A month before the base closed in October, 1994, Calabrese got a job with the FAA and has been there ever since. 

Calabrese says he’s never regretted being a PASS member since joining in 1995 and is proud to be a part of it.

“One of the better benefits of being part of a union is that we have the ability to negotiate our pay and working conditions,” he said. “That’s important because we provide an important service to maintain flight safety for the flying public. The air traffic controllers are the face of the FAA, but we’re the ones who make everything work so that they can do their job.”

PASS member, Fredi Cahn, who works as an aviation safety inspector in the Portland Flight Standards District Office, agrees. He says that while unions can have their drawbacks, it is critical to have union protections, especially in his profession.

"A lot of people in Maine don’t understand what unions are for, they don’t get it," he said. "But unions are there to make it safe for you to come to work. I don’t mean safe in that a brick doesn’t fall on your head. It means you don’t worry about your job at the end of the day because you’re wearing the wrong aftershave or you had the bad luck of picking a boss that doesn’t like you for some reason."

Cahn said when he went from working at a non-union to a union shop, the union difference became blatantly apparent, especially when it came to safety. As a safety critical business, he said it "only takes one screw up  to make phenomenally bad things happen."

"Sometimes you make hard decisions when determining whether an airplane is safe to go or not." said Cahn. "In my entire 29-year career as a union airline pilot, I never had a decision of mine questioned. Ever. When I said "This airplane is not safe to go," I never received a call from the chief pilot or the owner of the company asking me to change my assessment. That was sacrosanct. I’m not saying all non-union companies are bad, but in non-union companies that’s far more likely to occur."

PASS has also had to fight to maintain the quality and safety of the service they provide. The union vigorously defended the FAA against efforts to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system. PASS successfully argued that this critical public safety service should be performed by committed public servants who are answerable to the American people, rather than private corporate interests motivated solely by profit. The last effort in 2016 to privatize the FAA was finally defeated two years later, thanks to the hard work of PASS members. 

But sometimes the valuable work they do is not respected by those in power. PASS employees were forced keep working without pay during the federal government shutdown from December to January, 2019. PASS members in Maine joined other federal employees from AFGE and took to the streets and visited the offices of our federal elected officials to demand that they be compensated for all their labor and for all federal employees to be allowed to go back to work. 

PASS is supporting the “Aviation Funding Stability Act,” legislation in Congress to keep the FAA funded and their members paid in the event of a government shutdown. Please contact our elected officials and tell them to support this important legislation so that PASS members and the FAA are protected in the event of another federal government shut down.

Please contact our elected officials and tell them to support this important legislation so that PASS members and the FAA are protected in the event of another federal government shut down.