Skip to main content

Donald Kovacs oral history interview, March 20, 2015

Identifier: KovacsD_L2015-16

Scope and Contents

Interviewed by Traci Drummond: In this interview, Kovacs initially discusses his family background and eventual enlistment into the United States Navy and service during Vietnam. He discusses his transition from military life to becoming an air traffic controller and a member of PATCO. Kovacs explains much of the early years of PATCO and his own membership in the organization leading into a leadership role. He elaborated on the conditions that led to the outbreak of the 1981 PATCO strike, discussing both the labor conditions for the workers themselves, the relationship with the federal government in trying to negotiate for better conditions without having to strike, and expectations held by PATCO’s members in regards to what they would gain from a strike. Kovacs discusses organizing the strike and gave his perspective on the public and the government’s reaction to the strike. He then gives his own experience from the fallout of the strike, discussing the effects of the mass firing and ban from public service as limiting his work opportunities, as well as giving a perspective on the process of replacing the fired workers and the eventual establishment of NATCA as a new professional organization representing air traffic control workers. Kovacs moved the discussion on to talking about his life after the strike, beginning with his attempts at changing careers before eventually returning to working as an air traffic controller after the ban on the strikers was lifted, closing with a retrospective take on how he later came to view the strike and what he thought could have been done differently with how PATCO carried out the strike.


  • Creation: March 20, 2015


Restrictions on Access

Available in Reading Room and online

Biographical Note

Donald Kovacs was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1947. After graduating from high school in 1965, he enlisted in the United States Navy and attended the Navy’s radar school in San Francisco, Calif. Upon leaving the military, Kovacs applied for a position with the Federal Aviation Administration and was hired as an air traffic controller in 1969, following which he joined the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). Kovacs worked in Oberlin, Ohio for a few years before relocating to work in Atlanta, Ga., where he eventually became a leader of the local. In 1981, PATCO went on a high-profile strike, and Kovacs became a prominent figure representing the strike in the Atlanta area. Kovacs was fired along with the rest of the strikers refusing to return to work after Ronald Reagan issued an ultimatum for the strikers to end the strike and report to work, and was subsequently included in the ban that disallowed the strikers from employment in Federal civil service jobs. After the strike, Kovacs worked as a salesman for Pitney Bowes. Bill Clinton later ended the ban placed on the PATCO strikers, allowing Kovacs to return to work as an air traffic controller, where he remained until his retirement in 2009. Kovacs received the following honors for his military service: Navy Achievement Medal with Combat Valor "V" National Defense Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with (4) bronze campaign stars, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon, and Republic of Vietnam Gallantry cross Ribbon with Palm.


2 Item(s) (transcript (142 pages) audio (2:46:39 duration))

Language of Materials

From the Collection: English

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections Repository

100 Decatur St., S.E.
Atlanta, Georgia 30303
404-413-2881 (Fax)