Thursday, January 24, 2008

All is Well - Remain Calm!

Aside from my family, golf, my union, the labor movement and my job, politics is obviously my passion. I’m not sure what has drawn me to politics, but as you can see from my passages to date, it is something I love to read and write about. I typically do not think about my job or how those in charge are running the US aviation system to the brink of failure, but today happens to be one of those days.

There are many people in my union who are writing about the current state of the air traffic control system and those who “manage” it – and I use the term loosely. Check out FAA Follies, Get the Flick and The Main Bang for some witty and insightful information on that topic.

I urge everyone to check our Don Brown’s post from a few days ago: Air Traffic: Safety vs. Capacity. It is written from the perspective of someone who knows and cares more about the safety aspect of aviation than perhaps anyone you will ever meet, and he has an incredible knack for putting things into perspective that everyone can understand.

I certainly cannot hold a candle to what my brothers and sisters are writing and will never try. I simply do not have the time or energy. For my own sanity, today is just one of those days that I feel compelled to write about yesterday at work.

The shift began with little fanfare. Those who had worked a day shift were packing up the remnants of their lunches, grabbing their winter gear and heading for the exits. I stopped to kibitz for a minute as I prepared to start my shift. It was typical air traffic for a Wednesday afternoon in mid-January.

After my first break, I was handed a binder with a “briefing item” to read. You see, FAA management is too busy to provide any type of recurrent or refresher training, so we are relegated to training ourselves by reading these boring items, watching videos and PowerPoint presentations. This briefing item contained summaries of the 22 “controller errors” from around the system this past weekend as well as five accidents – an unusually high amount in a system that runs at near perfection. FAA management felt it was necessary to make sure I was aware that we’re slipping and we need to do better. It was presented in a way that a manager would tell a 16-year old not to waste those blackened fries in the bottom of the basket at McDonalds.

What struck me as odd was the cover letter my manager wrote. He began by speaking about the “winter doldrums” and how “we can all get complacent” and “we need to be more diligent”. I didn’t think much of it until I read a little further down, “We can’t think of them as blips on a screen – there are thousands of lives that depend upon us every day. Really? First of all, as if I needed someone who pushes papers around a desk all day – and does little else – to remind me of what is at stake every time I key my microphone and speak to an airplane. Furthermore, I’m no psychologist, but typically I divorce myself from the thought of the thousands of lives. How else could someone work in a pressure filled environment? You want your surgeon to be aware that he or she has your life in their hands but you certainly don’t want that in the forefront as their shaky hand runs the scalpel across your chest.

As I pondered a nineteen year career filled with pressure packed moments that certainly have robbed me of some of my youthfulness and my later years, the dedication I have given to this career field and how my coworkers always are cognizant of “what’s at stake”, I could only shake my head in disbelief of what I had read. As I read the errors from the weekend, I noticed a disturbing trend: most, if not all occurred at the busy hub facilities, where controller staffing has been denigrated due to a mass wave of retirements. Air traffic controller staffing has always been a bubble waiting to burst like the housing market. The only thing that kept people around was a good wage and an excellent work environment. As soon as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) froze controller wages and imposed draconian work rules that eroded morale and ruined the workplace, folks were tripping over one another as they headed for the exits. The sad fact is, they were warned.

The redundancy in the system is gone. Thousands of years of experience walked out the door. The system is being held together by the few of us left with experience desperately trying to train people with little to no experience. This is not about a labor dispute or a union crying wolf. This is the reality that I live in every single day. The FAA has continued to tell everyone “everything is ok, we’re hiring controllers. The system is fully staffed.” (I think of Kevin Bacon in one of the final scenes of Animal House. As people are running through the streets near Faber College screaming, He’s standing there with his hands up yelling, “Remain calm!!! All is well!!”)

The truth is they are not hiring controllers; they are hiring people for us to develop into controllers – a process that can take as long as five years. Meanwhile, as Rome burns, people are still exiting in droves. At some facilities, developmentals outnumber controllers. Many other facilities do not have the personnel to train the new hires, so they sit and wait to start their training – some for as long as two years.

A few hours later, we received notification that a key component of the computer system at Boston Center had inexplicably failed. Located in Nashua, NH, Boston Center is responsible for a large chunk of the air traffic in the busy and congested Northeastern United States. The air traffic controllers at Boston Center were in a crisis. Airplanes were put into holding patterns. Traffic that was not airborne was held. The men and women dedicated to keeping you safe snapped into action and worked as a team, as if everything was normal.

All flights at Albany were held on the ground as the problem was sorted out. Since we own airspace up to 10,000 feet (Boston Center owns above that), we were able to route some traffic below Boston’s airspace. A flight to Cleveland, for example, which would typically cruise at 36,000 feet, was held at 10,000 for about 100 miles. Again, whatever it takes.

I’m sure this morning was filled with TELCONs, head scratching and wonderment of what went wrong. I would not want to venture a guess, but I can tell you one thing: in the past year or so, the FAA stopped spending money and labor on routine maintenance and testing of equipment. They adopted a “wait until it breaks” policy with regard to the equipment that we use to keep you safe. It’s a reckless policy and if has anything to do with yesterday’s outage, heads should roll. Quite frankly, heads should roll even if it didn’t!

I’m sure today will start just like yesterday. Put the lunch bag away; exchange some friendly banter with my coworkers. They’ll say, “Man, if I had to be here until 10pm tonight, I’d probably jump off the tower” and I’ll reply, “Well, it’s certainly a good thing your shift is over and the “A” team is here!” All in good fun and all for a good cause. Man, do I love my job!


Don Brown said...

"I certainly cannot hold a candle to what my brothers and sisters are writing and will never try."

You lied, Brother.

Nice post.

And thanks for the plug.

Don Brown

abieber said...


Very well written brother me miss you here in AZ.

Angry Fokker

atcmp said...

Thanks Yaz we can always use another voice, since apparently the public isn't listening!

Hopefully this writers strike will end and we can go back to more "Yea Right" reality television.