The Last FAM
A look at the ATC system in the year 2011 in which cockpits and ATC are fully automated, the FAA has been privatized, and GPS provides the sole means of navigation. Written by an FAA air traffic controller, this biting satire originally appeared in THE NATCA VOICE, the newsletter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
In ATC parlance, a "FAM" is a familiarization ride in which an air traffic controller is permitted to ride jumpseat in an airline cockpit to observe what the ATC system looks like from the point of view of the cockpit crew.
As I entered the cockpit of the Boeing 787, I couldn't help but be impressed. My gaze quickly focused on the 787's "brains" - the NOATC (Navigational Omni-Aviation Transit Center). The CHIMP (Collocated Human Integrated Monitor/Purser) followed my gaze, and offered a brief demonstration.
As the CHIMP deftly commanded, NOATC instantly displayed information on our filed route, and real-time data on weather along the route, weight and balance figures, passenger information, and air traffic flows for the entire route of flight. Once airborne, NOATC would direct the 787 on the most efficient, direct path to our destination while providing storm and traffic avoidance.
Once the CHIMP was sure that all passengers were aboard, he made the proper entry in NOATC. After we placed the LSD (Laser Saliva Detector) under our tongues, instantaneous analysis by NOATC gave us a green light, confirming we were both alcohol and drug free. NOATC then ran through its paces - checking and evaluating all systems, starting the engines, automatically locking entry/exit doors, stowing trays and moving seats to the upright position. The ground crew pushed us back.
As the CHIMP and I peered through the windows in vain at the fog-enshrouded airport, hoping for a glimpse at another aircraft, NOATC began taxiing us out towards the runway. The CHIMP, noticing my slight look of apprehension, asked when I had last been on a FAM.
"Late 1996," I replied. "Just after the demise of the FAA. Things have sure changed a lot since then. The system is sure a lot more efficient now that NOGA (National Organization of Governmental Aviation) has complete control of the skies." "1996." the CHIMP said reflectively, "I was just getting out of diapers about then."
1996, I thought to myself as I studied the peach-fuzz on the CHIMP's face. Hard to believe that was only fifteen years ago. But it has been an interesting career. I came aboard the FAA back in August of 1981. The FAA was disbanded in late 1996, after the 3-way midair collision caused by a radar outage at Chicago Center. TCAS proved itself lethal that infamous day. NATCA's warnings were finally proven true, but it was too late. Too late for 439 innocent souls and too late for NATCA, as NATCA was decertified in mid-1996 by FAA sponsored legislation that eliminated Title 5 of the United States Code (USC).
In the waning years of the 1990's, I was witness to more bungling of the air traffic control system by the newly privatized ATC company, GPAC (Global Public Aviation Company). Most employees commonly referred to GPAC as the "Golden Parachutes Alive Club."
"But the satellites are not supposed to fail! NOGA has proof that the NOATC system is over 99.94% reliable and accurate "
GPAC had successfully lobbied for sweeping procurement reforms and unleashed contracting powers through their impressive array of influence in the Cabinet, Capitol Hill, top-level airline officials and hungry high-tech company representatives.
Top level GPAC officials procured multi-billion dollar advanced automation systems, alleging an improved ATC system, while currying themselves future employment at the most favored high-tech companies. Other GPAC entrepreneurs created their own consulting firms, which would contract with GPAC for various services. Still other inventive GPAC managers would incorporate as air traffic control servicing agents, writing their own contracts with GPAC to take over ATC services formerly provided by GPAC at airports around the country. Many resourceful GPAC con-artists not only received full retirement benefits throughout this debacle, but most also were rewarded with retirement bonus incentives that they lavished on themselves.
This vicious cycle of fleecing the nation's coffers continued unabated while controller morale severely declined in the face of constant layoffs and paycuts, ultimately leading to the "Day of the Silent Skies". Former NATCA officials and other concerned controllers had beseeched the public for years about the improprieties affecting the failing ATC system, but in vain. Their cry went unheeded until, on the "Day of the Silent Skies," nearly all of the remaining controller and maintenance workforce refused to participate in the charade any longer.
A special Presidential Task Force ultimately exonerated the 11,000 controllers and technicians who walked off their jobs in frustration that day. The Task Force determined they were justified in light of the "abhorrent mismanagement of all systems, people and funds" The grassroots organizers of "Silent Skies," officers of the defunct NATCA, were proclaimed heroes for "protecting the U.S. public from another disastrous demise." The criminals of GPAC were sentenced to prison.
The CHIMP interrupted my painful reminiscing. "We're taking the runway now," he said, pointing out the window at the MD-101 that had just landed. Looking the other way, up through the fog, I knew another airliner was preparing to land immediately after we made our departure. Once, many years ago, I would have probably felt a bit apprehensive bout moving onto the runway in such fog, but with NOATC, there was nothing to fear. Effortlessly, we quickly climbed through the fog to cruising altitude. The CHIMP, in full recline, dozed peacefully.
With its entire system of sensors, monitors, computers and redundancies, NOATC took command of the aircraft from pushback to arrival at the destination's passenger gate. NOATC would sequence taxi, takeoff, cruise, and landing functions through a maze of complex systems and coordinated calculations. Lives were no longer entrusted to the living. NOGA saw to that.
"NOATC indicates it's an 'Omni-Satellite Heterokinesia Interruption/Termination' (OSHIT) anomaly,"
Soon after the turn of the century NOGA was created, forever replacing GPAC. The government took complete possession of the skies, banning all forms of private aviation. The general aviation community had been in an uproar, but the government would not be dissuaded; general aviation was too dangerous, too inefficient. Private and corporate aircraft owners could not afford the extensive equipment upgrades necessary to function according to NOATC's design specifications.
NOATC, the crowning achievement of NOGA, became fully operational in 2008. For the past 3 years, I had served as one of the few remaining Air Traffic Monitors in the country, but we were no longer necessary. We are expendable "relics of the past" they said. NOATC's track record is unbeatable; the system is safe.
A sudden jolt startled me. I glanced at the CHIMP as he gazed wide-eyed at NOATC.
"What is it?" I asked, using my years of controller experience to disguise any alarm in my voice.
"NOATC indicates it's an `Omni-Satellite Heterokinesia Interruption/Termination' (OSHIT) anomaly," he blurted. NOATC continued evaluating the situation.
"What the hell does that mean?" I asked in my old familiar authoritative and commanding controller voice.
"Apparently one or more satellite sending units are off-line or out of alignment," said the CHIMP as he continued touch-entries to NOATC. "It's quite feasible that a NOGA satellite was knocked off course by space debris, another satellite, a meteor shower, or even knocked out of commission by any of those events," he added, his pitch rising.
"So what does that mean for us?" I demanded.
"We're without navigational guidance," he offered resignedly. NOATC confirmed the situation when moments later, "OSHIT," emblazoned across the multi-colored screen.
"So now we just manually steer this baby home, right?" I asked, a hint of uncertainty creeping up in my throat.
"I'm afraid not. We have back-ups for everything, but the satellites are not supposed to fail. We'll just have to wait for NOGA to get the satellites resynchronized, or worse case launch up replacement systems." "What do you mean?" I queried, sarcasm rising in my voice.
"Look, old-timer, let me explain. I've had over 3 months of intensive training at NUMSKUL (NOGA University for Monitor Systems Knowledge Under Law) in order to become a CHIMP! The system is safe! There are redundancies after redundancies. NOATC has thought of everything. We have dual engines, dual LSD units, dual computer systems, dual sensors for everything, and the latest version of coordinated traffic avoidance units: ONO-TCAS (Omni National Orbital-TCAS)!"
"NOATC efficiently guides this aircraft on its optimal route at the optimal altitudes and speeds; something no human is capable of. NOATC safely guides us around storms, other traffic, and even senses and corrects for turbulence. NOATC precisely sequences our aircraft to runways, constantly adjusting for all conditions. All of these systems are integrated through computers and sensors linked through NOATC to NOGA's satellites."
"But the satellites are not supposed to fail! NOGA has proof that the NOATC system is over 99.94% reliable and accurate - so accurate that there are no manual override capabilities on any aircraft within the system. It's simply not needed."
I sat there stunned. No manual overrides for interfering, imperfect humans. I knew of the automated properties of NOATC, but somehow I thought there would be some option for human intervention. Even early astronauts had insisted on modification that would allow a modicum of piloting if need be. But not with NOATC. Besides, I'm sure cost/benefit analysis calculated that such capabilities would be cost prohibitive.
"So what now?" I asked, breaking the silence.
"The aircraft remains at its last assigned altitude, course and speed until we either get back online or we run out of fuel," the CHIMP sighed dejectedly, hands folded in his lap.
I closed my eyes and let my head rest against the back of the seat, feeling rather nostalgic for the old days back in the early nineties.
The ATC system had numerous problems back then, but it worked - thanks to the dedicated controllers and technicians that held the frail system together. Despite billions of wasted dollars thrown at flawed modernization programs, the drive to reduce costs continued to focus on the labor force-the very ones that had struggled to keep the system operating safely and efficiently.
And to heap insult upon injury, wasn't it some FAA Administrator back than that referred to the concerned voices of once proud air traffic controllers as "burrs under the saddle?"
"Look at this!" the CHIMP blurted.
NOATC's STOP (Situational Traffic Overview Program) display depicted air traffic in real time over the entire country. Multiple targets of active traffic were rapidly disappearing from the screen. Soon, I realized, our target would be deleted from the screen.
"If only they would have listened to us. If only they had listened," I sighed.