Say Again? #37: VFR In A Vacuum

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Have you been turned down lately when you asked ATC for VFR advisories? Expect it to happen more and more often, especially when you and other pilots don't file a correct flight plan or use the proper phraseology. AVweb's Don Brown points out how the impending controller shortage will reduce the additional services ATC can provide.

Say Again?

I wanted to make this month's column another in the series of "courses" I've written over the last few years. The VFR season is upon us at Atlanta Center and the VFR traffic is climbing in direct relation to the mercury in the thermometer. As the summer progresses and the sky gets hazier, there will be even more traffic requesting VFR advisories.

I bet you can already feel the "but" coming, can't you? I've already written a couple of columns on VFR flight following. There's plenty more to say about the subject but there's something more important (yet related) on my mind this month. Not that the subject of VFR advisories isn't important, mind you. But VFR advisories don't take place in a vacuum. They occur within the greater context of the system. Let me see if a can start making sense.

Tick, Tick, Tick

As most of you are well aware, I'm the Facility Safety Representative at Atlanta Center for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). NATCA has been trying to warn anyone that would listen of a crisis that is looming in regard to controller staffing. I've mentioned it in several articles and NATCA has been beating on this drum for quite some time. We've even managed to get the attention of a few people. What we haven't been able to get is action.

Those of you who have managed to tune out this subject are in for a rude awaking. The crisis has arrived. At least it has at Atlanta Center. I suspect it has arrived at a few other facilities but I'll let them speak for themselves. Pull out your calendars and calculators and see if you can follow along.

The now infamous PATCO strike -- where over 11,000 controllers were fired -- took place on August 3, 1981. That was almost 23 years ago. The reasons this is important are as follows. A controller who has worked "live traffic" for 25 years can retire at any age. A controller who has worked "live traffic" for 20 years can retire at age 50. You can't become an air traffic controller until you're 21 years old. And except for some rare cases, you can't be hired as a controller after you turn 31. There's one other important age limit. You can't remain a controller after age 55. There are some exceptions to all this but those are the numbers for the vast majority of controllers and that is what is important at the moment.

Addition by Subtraction

Let's start adding it up. 1981 plus 25 years equals 2006. In the year 2006 the controllers who were hired in 1981 when they were "young" (near age 21) start to become eligible to retire (including yours truly). Just as important, those who were hired "old" (near age 30) will start losing their eligibility to work "live traffic." They'll be forced into a staff job or retirement. So if you were 30 years old in 1981 you won't be able to work much past 2006.

As you can imagine, the controller retirement situation is a lot more complicated than this brief explanation. Not everyone was hired in 1981 at age 21 (or age 30) and not every single controller is going to retire the day they are eligible. But some of them will. Some of them have. Some of them have already reached age 50 with 20 years of service and are now playing golf in Florida. And in case you haven't looked at your calendar lately, it's only 2004. We haven't reached 2006 yet, when it's supposed to get really ugly.

So What?

I suppose by now a number of you are wondering what this has to do with VFR advisories. I finally made the connection when I was responding to one of my readers last month. It's been slowly but surely working its way into my consciousness as more and more controllers at Atlanta Center come to me asking for advice.

Well, that's not quite accurate. Some of the controllers do ask for advice about the situation but a lot more of them approach me with the attitude of "What the $#@! are you going to do about this %#&#!" I don't have an answer for them. The FAA hasn't seen fit to place me in charge. I'm not sure that would be a solution anyway.

Good Advice Doesn't Change

Believe it or not, the advice I offer controllers is essentially the same advice I offer pilots. After I listen to them vent a little steam (or a lot, depending on bad they got whipped), I try to get them to think about what they can do themselves the next time the number of airplanes exceeds their ability to handle them without any additional help. I refer them to the book.

In this case, "the book" is the FAA 7110.65. Specifically, I refer them to:

2-1-1. ATC SERVICE

"The primary purpose of the ATC system is to prevent a collision between aircraft operating in the system and to organize and expedite the flow of traffic. In addition to its primary function, the ATC system has the capability to provide (with certain limitations) additional services. The ability to provide additional services is limited by many factors, such as the volume of traffic, frequency congestion, quality of radar, controller workload, higher priority duties, and the pure physical inability to scan and detect those situations that fall in this category. It is recognized that these services cannot be provided in cases in which the provision of services is precluded by the above factors."

Subtracting Additionals

If you search through the 7110.65 for a definition of "additional services," you'd better have a lot of time on your hands. It's been cleverly tucked away in the Pilot/Controller Glossary:

"ADDITIONAL SERVICES - Advisory information provided by ATC, which includes but is not limited to the following:

  1. Traffic advisories.

  2. Vectors, when requested by the pilot, to assist aircraft receiving traffic advisories to avoid observed traffic.

  3. Altitude deviation information of 300 feet or more from an assigned altitude as observed on a verified (reading correctly) automatic altitude readout (Mode C).

  4. Advisories that traffic is no longer a factor.

  5. Weather and chaff information.

  6. Weather assistance.

  7. Bird activity information.

  8. Holding pattern surveillance.

That's an interesting list, isn't it? You'll notice that the list starts with "Traffic advisories." I also want to make sure you see this last paragraph:

"Additional services are provided to the extent possible contingent only upon the controller's capability to fit them into the performance of higher priority duties and on the basis of limitations of the radar, volume of traffic, frequency congestion, and controller workload. The controller has complete discretion for determining if he/she is able to provide or continue to provide a service in a particular case. The controller's reason not to provide or continue to provide a service in a particular case is not subject to question by the pilot and need not be made known to him/her."

The Sum Equals

Or, as I told one of my readers last month, I bet I've refused more requests for VFR advisories in the last year than I have in the last 20. For anyone who might be having trouble piecing all this together, let me speak plainly. I've got controllers coming up to me concerned because they can't handle the volume of IFR traffic being thrown at them with the staffing we have. The first "additional service" I recommend they cut is VFR traffic advisories.

The reasons are simple. First, it's in the book. Second, your typical VFR eats up a lot of time and attention. More about that later.

As to what else I tell them to cut, all you have to do is walk down the list. It starts getting real interesting when you get to "weather and chaff information" and "weather assistance." You see, I'm saying, "VFR traffic advisories," but the book doesn't make a distinction between VFR and IFR. It just says "traffic advisories," "weather information," and "weather assistance."

Bad Medicine

All this is a real hard pill to swallow for most controllers. They pride themselves on the level of service they are able to provide. The idea of having to cut back on services just doesn't sit well with them. But we all find out -- sooner or later -- that Boeing does indeed make enough airplanes to sink us.

As I said earlier, none of this happens in a vacuum. The controllers at Atlanta Center aren't going to deny you VFR advisories (or any other additional service) every time you ask for it. As long as they can provide a service, they will. Some will even try when they shouldn't. That's what happens when you put people between a rock and a hard place. They have to make choices. And sometimes they make the wrong choice.

For instance: Some controller, somewhere, is going to read this and decide he doesn't have to call traffic when he's busy ... forgetting that traffic advisories and merging target procedures are two different things. Or some manager will read this, decide I'm offering bad advice, and write some guidance for controllers that contradicts the 7110.65 ... forgetting that the 7110.65 provides controllers the leeway to reduce their workload and spells out a logical order in which to accomplish the task. I won't even venture a guess as to how a pilot might misinterpret what I've written.

Reading the Signs

This crisis won't become apparent overnight, either. It will happen gradually over time. Some of you might have noticed it already, but I'd bet the vast majority of you haven't. If you're lucky, it will be a couple of more years before you do notice it. Let's see if I can explain it so that you might recognize the signs.

Everybody knows I love working the WILKES sector. For those of you just joining us, the WILKES sector is basically an Approach Control (for Hickory, N.C.) inside Atlanta Center. The sector "owns" 10,000 feet and below. As you can imagine, we work a lot of VFRs in this sector.

The thing to remember is that VFRs just show up at random. There isn't any schedule they adhere to. We know when the arrival and departure pushes are at the airline hubs like CLT and ATL. They're scheduled. We even have an idea about the corporate traffic. It's somewhat random but business people still operate on an 8 to 5 schedule for the most part. But VFRs ... as long as it's daylight, you just never know.

Less Than Busy

Let's say I'm sitting at the WILKES sector just twiddling my thumbs. Yeah, it still happens occasionally. Like I said, you just never know. Nobody is out there and I hear,

"Atlanta Center, Cessna 12345, request."

Nobody is on the scope and a quick scan of the proposal strips doesn't reveal anybody with that callsign. So I just shake my head and say,

Cessna 12345, Atlanta Center, say request.

"Uh ... yeah, Center ... uh ... Cessna 12345, we're a Cessna 172 and ... uh ... we're out of 4,300 and we're about 10 miles north of Marion and ... uh ... we'd like to get VFR flight following."

It never ceases to amaze me. Once I finish writing the information down I ask the computer for a beacon code and say,

Cessna 12345, squawk 3245.

"3245, Cessna 345. Do you see any weather in front of us?"

How would I know? I haven't even found him on the scope yet. There are three different Marions in my area, I haven't said radar contact yet, and he didn't tell me his destination so I don't know which way "in front of us" is yet.

Cessna 12345, radar contact, one zero miles east of Morganton, say destination.

"345, roger, we're going to Mount Airy."

Cessna 12345, roger, maintain VFR, Hickory altimeter is 3011.

"345, roger, do you see any weather in front of us Center?"

Cessna 12345, negative, say your cruising altitude.

"Uh, we'll be climbing to 5,500."

I'm not even going to ask him what his altitude now is (to verify the Mode C readout). I'll just wait until he levels off, in that there isn't anyone else out there.

Do you see how many mistakes were made above? Do you see how long the process takes? I'm guessing that most people don't because this is closer to the norm than it is the exception. (Read VFR Cross Country for more.) I swear I can understand it when it's coming from the student pilots, but most of the pilots that sound like this aren't students. Before I get off on a tangent, lets get back to the central theme of this article.

More Than Busy

Let's reverse the situation. Now, instead of it being slow, it's going to be more like a typical day at Atlanta Center. I've already got about three or four VFRs, and CLT is landing south, which means I get to work the turboprops into CLT and they're running 15 miles in-trail. Just because it's the way things seem to work out, I've got two corporate guys that have departed VFR and expect their IFR clearances, instantly. Hickory Tower is still waiting on the clearance they asked for three minutes ago, and I've got two different people on the override line trying to coordinate.

I need some help. I turn around to find the supervisor and he's on the phone coordinating with Flow Control. I notice that the controller who was stuffing strips has been stolen to help at the PSK sector and the supervisor (who intended to take over the strips) is still on the phone, so there's now about a dozen flight progress strips sitting in the printer and Lord only knows how many of those belong to me. In other words, there isn't any help. Somebody might be on break (or not) but by the time they could get back it'll be too late.

While I'm still turned around trying to absorb all this, I hear,

"Atlanta Center, Cessna 12345, request."

I turn around and search through the dozen airplanes I'm working, and I can't figure out which airplane it might have been that called.

Calling Atlanta Center, say again.

"Uh ... yeah, Center ... uh ... Cessna 12345, we're a Cessna 172 and ... uh ... we're out of 4,300 and we're about 10 miles north of Marion and ... uh ... we'd like to get VFR flight following."

What would you say if you were me? That's easy. Because if you were me you'd say "Unable." I can't handle what I've got. I'm not taking on more.

Overload

Don't run away. We're not done yet. Ten seconds later you hear,

"Atlanta Center, Lear 34567, request."

What now?

Lear 34567, go ahead.

"Lear 34567 is off Statesville requesting clearance."

I don't have the time but before I can stop myself -- out of sheer habit -- I look over in the proposal bay to find this guy's flight plan. Sure enough, it's there and I see this guy has filed direct TEB. That's two minutes to fix the flight plan, a pointout to GSO Approach and I'll need to coordinate with the next sector because his route will take him right into their arrival stream headed for CLT. Three minutes worth of work and I don't have three seconds.

Lear 34567, Atlanta Center, unable clearance."

What?! There will be a short pause and then, depending on this guy's personality, he'll start playing "20 questions" or he will try to "assert" himself. Neither of which is going to work. At the rate he's climbing he'll be out of my sector before he can ask two questions. Not that I'm going to give him much of a chance to use up that much of my time (that I don't have to spare).

It Only Counts ...

And for those of you wondering: Yes, I know how big of a lurch this will leave the guy in. The next sector is probably just as busy as I am and may not be able to give him a clearance. The sector after that is in Washington Center and they won't even have a flight plan on him. It's possible that he'll be stuck flying VFR at 17,500 (assuming that is even an option) for 100 miles or more. Controllers aren't the only ones that are being put between and rock and a hard place.

As most of you who fly though Atlanta Center realize, these types of situations are not the norm (thankfully.) What you may or may not realize is that they are becoming more commonplace. Being plugged in for three hours and 40 minutes without a break isn't the norm in Atlanta Center either. But it happened a couple of weeks ago.

Controllers aren't supposed to be plugged in without a break for more than two hours. It's a human factors thing. Humans can't maintain the intense concentration necessary to do this job for much over two hours without making an increasing amount of errors. Seeing as this happened on a day in which we worked over 9,900 operations, trust me, intense concentration was necessary.

... When it Counts

(32 Kb)
ATC Attrition, Past and Future, from the GAO Report, June 2002 (Acrobat PDF file). Click for larger version.

The reason it happened is simple. We ran out of controllers. We robbed Peter and we robbed Paul but there still weren't enough controllers to meet the demand. And in case that number above didn't hit you, demand is at an all time high in Atlanta Center. As far as I'm aware (and I write down the traffic count every day I'm at work), Atlanta Center has only exceeded 10,000 operations per day twice, previous to this year. Once was in 1998 during the NBAA Convention at Dekalb-Peachtree (PDK) and the other time was during The Masters golf tournament at Augusta, Ga., (AGS) in 2001. We've already exceeded 10,000 operations-per-day three times this year. We exceeded 9,900 operations per day on three other days this year, too.

I could go on and on, but it's time to wrap this thing up. What do I want you, the pilot, to do? The same thing I've always encouraged you to do: Follow the book -- the AIM. I need you to take that advice personally, because -- unless you were that guy I worked off ZEF last week -- you've got a room for improvement.

That's how rare it is to see someone follow the book these days. I still remember how nice it was to see someone get it right. His flight plan, procedures and radio technique were perfect. Better than being "nice," it was efficient and orderly. I didn't have to fix his flight plan because he filed it correctly. I didn't have to ask him to "say again" because he spoke clearly and used standard phraseology. I didn't have to ask him what his "on course heading" would be because (again) he filed his flight plan correctly. I didn't even have to ask him to "say altitude leaving." When I saw him on the radar and said, "... radar contact five south of Elkin, climb and maintain seven thousand," he came right back with textbook phraseology: "N12345 leaving four thousand two hundred climbing to seven thousand." No confusion. No wasted frequency time. No delay. I could move smoothly on to other customers and get them on their way, too.

It Really Counts

You can do this. I don't care if you have only 10 hours or 10,000 hours flying time. Good phraseology and good radio technique just aren't that tough. All you need is some practice and to believe me when I tell you how important it is. Scratch that. I don't need you to believe me; I need you to believe the book. Ditto for filing a proper flight plan or any other procedure involving ATC. You can take the five extra minutes that it might take to do it right while you're on the ground or you can gamble that ATC has the time to sort it out in the air.

As always, that's the point I want you to see. It's in your best interest to operate by the book. I'm not foolish enough to believe that sticking to the book is going to solve all our problems. It won't stop the wave of controller retirements that is occurring. Following proper procedures, by itself, won't cure all the issues that need to be addressed to handle the increasing demand. But without it -- without your help -- additional services will be denied with increasing frequency. When we reach the point where we have to put "excessive" in-trail restrictions on the departures out of a airline hub like Atlanta -- when we have to stop the IFR departures from entering a saturated sector -- you can bet your bottom dollar we won't be entertaining requests for VFR flight following.

Have a safe flight.

Don Brown
Facility Safety Representative
National Air Traffic Controllers Association
Atlanta ARTCC


Want to read more from Don Brown? Check out the rest of his columns.