Say Again? #45: Lies in the Dark

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AVweb's Don Brown had the opportunity to fly the airlines recently and had to deal with what someone probably would describe as an 'air traffic control delay.' Don thinks the FAA's newfound interest in a 10-year plan for ATC isn't going to help future delays and may even make them worse.

Say Again?

As I sit on an airliner hissing through the night sky -- as someone involved in aviation -- I'm struck by all the lies we tell each other. I'm traveling with my family, accompanying my wife to her parent's home. As always seems to be the case, when you need to make haste, airplanes seem to be the slowest form of transportation.

It all started with the standard telephone call -- the one we all dread, yet know will inevitably come. It's time. Come as quick as you can. Mom may not last the night. You check the airfares and are appalled by the prices on a no-notice ticket. Around $1,000 per ticket to fly into the airport we normally use -- the low-demand airport. We search around and find a fare for $250 into a high-demand airport. We'll rent a car, drive the extra hour and still come out cheaper. A lot cheaper. LaGuardia (LGA) here we come.

Hurry Up and Wait

I'm sure this makes sense in someone's business model. I'm just not smart enough to figure it out. Oh well ... I'm not in the mood for economic theory at the moment anyway. We load up the kids and drive to Hartsfield (ATL). We arrive an hour early, just like the airport folks tell you to do. We make it to the gate and the first thing we see is that our flight is delayed. By two hours. I don't even bother asking why.

First of all, I'm afraid someone will tell me it's an "air traffic control delay" and I'll lose my cool. I'm like most other controllers in that I really don't appreciate being routinely tagged with causing delays. Secondly, it doesn't really matter what the reason for the delay is, I'm not going to be able to change it sitting at an airline gate. The thought does occur to me to call work and find out what is really going on. Especially when my wife and kids look at me with that "Can't you do something?" look. But I actually know what the problem is -- I look at the weather radar before I fly -- and that storm means the guys at work already have enough to deal with. I stop trying to lie to myself and just sit and take it like the rest of the folks at the gate.

We finally get loaded up and start taxiing out. The pilot comes on the intercom with the usual apology for the delay. He tells us how many airplanes are in front of us on the taxiway, does some quick math and says we'll be airborne in about 15 minutes. The guy sitting next to me looks at me and we just shake our heads. He's not buying it either. Evidently, he flies to LGA on a regular basis. Sure enough, we get to the end, taxi off to the side and the guy next to me points out the airplanes going by us as we wait for the slot time we've been assigned to LGA.

Once we get airborne the pilot comes back on the intercom with a new ETA for LGA. He also calls our attention to the light show off to our left. That would be over near the MACEY arrival into ATL. You can see there is almost continuous lightning off in the distance. Thunderstorms in December; I wonder if anybody factored that into their business model?

Time to Think

I know all this may sound a little esoteric but that's what happens when I'm not wrapped up in the day-to-day details of work. Between the trip to New York and my scheduled vacation, I've had more days off than usual. It's given me some time to breathe, to sit back and think about the bigger picture. I've also had some time to do some reading. That is when I ran across this phrase: "Air traffic control expert."

"Expert," huh? Really? What runs through your mind when you read that phrase: "Air traffic control expert"? Do you envision a crusty old controller sitting in front of a radar scope? How about some sharp-looking young man with a pair of binoculars in the Tower? Or maybe you envision somebody at FAA headquarters. Somebody who is involved in the nitty-gritty of the operations. Someone who not only knows five miles and a thousand feet, wake turbulence separation and arrival rates, but also knows how things work in the Traffic Management Unit and the Airspace office.

That is what I imagined. The image of some industry consultant that has never strapped on a headset never crossed my mind. The image of a pilot never did, either. I always wondered how that works. I've worked around airplanes all my life. I've even flown a few (notice I didn't say landed), although I never got my ticket. That doesn't make me an expert on piloting. And I hope nobody ever refers to me as such. It does makes you wonder how someone who has never been a controller gets touted as an "expert" in air traffic control, though.

Dark Stages

Untruths cover a spectrum as broad as truths. There are little lies and then there are whoppers. They all have something in common, though. Darkness. It all depends on how "in the dark" the teller is. And the listener. I don't believe for a minute that a pilot trying to keep his passengers in the loop is intentionally trying to lie. On the contrary: He's just trying to do his job the best way he can with the information available to him. The problem is in the information available. He's in the dark as to what is really going on. His listeners are even more in the dark.

Likewise, I don't believe a reporter is trying to mislead his readers when he tags a pilot (or anyone else) with the designation "expert" regarding air traffic control. A professional pilot knows a good deal about air traffic control in comparison to a reporter. Again, the teller (the reporter) is in the dark and listener (the reader) even more so.

Into the Abyss

I can understand how these scenarios might unfold. Some tales are harder to swallow, though. Unless, of course, the listener is really in the dark. Take, for instance, the FAA's recent report on staffing: A Plan for the Future: The FAA's 10-Year Strategy for the Air Traffic Control Workforce.

First, I'm not really sure how this qualifies as a plan. It's a little late. It's over 23 years since the PATCO strike, when a slew of new controllers started working. Controllers can retire after 25 years of working traffic. The math is simple: 1981 + 25 = 2006. In case you forgot to flip the page on your calendar this month, it's already 2005. It sounds like it's in the nick of time until you realize it can take five years to train a controller. That means the FAA should have had a plan in 2001. Either that or we have to wait until 2010 for the plan to take effect.

I realize some of my readers will view this article as just another union-versus-management argument. I can understand that. What I'd like for you to see is that the argument affects you and all the other users of the National Airspace System. Whether you agree with me or not is (of course) entirely up to you. But as I hope to show you, I didn't form my opinions just yesterday -- after reading the FAA's "plan" -- I've held them for quite some time.

Hurry Up and Train

"Filling the job of a controller who retires today is the culmination of many steps that must by necessity have begun several years in advance. In the past, the process required three to five years. Through improvements in classroom training, increased use of high-technology simulators and more efficient on-the-job training, we expect to compress that process to two to three years."

I guess the FAA didn't learn much from the strike in 1981. Except that you can shortcut the training program. The question isn't "Can you?" it is "Should you?" Or in this case, "Should you really have to?" They did it in 1981 to meet a crisis. As I pointed out above, today's "crisis" has been foreseeable for 25 years.

As one of the people who actually suffered through a shortened training program, I can tell you first-hand it was like most choices made when you're between a rock and a hard place: a poor one. Prior to the strike it took a minimum of five years to go from a trainee to a fully certified controller at the Centers. Those rules were waived and we were told we'd be controllers in 2 years and 2 days. Turns out that was a lie too (for most of us) but regardless, I made FPL (Full Performance Level) in two and half years. (Note: Controllers that are fully trained and qualified at their facility were formerly called FPLs. They are now referred to as CPCs: Certified Professional Controllers.)

As the old saying goes, good judgment usually comes from bad experience. Cutting that (bad) experience in half for controller trainees means cutting the (good) judgment in half too. The FAA isn't going to make up the difference with simulators (referred to in their report), either. At least not with the simulators we have at the Centers. I hear there are new simulators for Towers but I haven't heard about any in the Centers. I'm all for new and improved simulation. But by the time we get it, like much of this report, it will be too late for this situation.

Blind as a Bat

"We're taking action to increase hiring efficiency. By improving the screening process, a nine-week screen has been reduced to an eight-hour test. "

For crying out loud, please don't get me started. The "screening" process was non-radar. That was what separated the men from the boys in ATC. Anybody who has read any of my articles knows how I feel about non-radar:

Say Again #17: Non-Radar Daze

"Non-radar is the basis for the entire airspace system. The widespread introduction of ATC radar some 40 years ago hasn't changed that fact. I don't know of any technology that is going to change it, either. Whether you're a pilot or a controller, if you don't understand non-radar you'll never truly understand the system."

But you don't have to take my word for it on training. Walk up to any controller you know and say, "So Joe, tell me about 'Train to Succeed.' " Watch their eyes roll back into their head. "Train to Succeed" was what we wound up with when the FAA changed the screen from learning non-radar to "an eight-hour test."

No Old and Bold Controllers Either

"The FAA believes that waivers to the Age-56 rule may be of value for targeted locations where there may be a critical staffing shortage and where the ratio of CPCs to developmentals is such that training would be impacted."

The issue is, in short, controllers aren't allowed to work "live traffic" after they turn 56. There are some "grandfathered" controllers still around who are exempt, but not many (116 according to the report). It's a good rule -- no controlling after 56. There are some controllers who don't like it (and I'm sure I'll hear from them), but as I've said over and over, this is a young man's game.

It's as simple as this: I'm 46 and I'm not getting any better at moving metal. I'm not going to get any better at it, either. I occasionally get to work with the younger controllers and I'm always left wondering, "Was I ever that fast?" Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, but those days are gone. Sure, I can still keep them separated. But that's only half of the battle. If you'll read the FAA's report, they're looking for efficiencies. They need to move more airplanes -- quicker -- because they're going to have less controllers. I can't handle as many airplanes as I used to, and I sure don't do it quicker. And anybody my age (much less 56 or older) isn't going to, either. It doesn't matter what the FAA waves in front of me once I hit the "magic" 25 years, I ain't biting. I'm retiring.

Closed For Staffing

In addition to right-sizing staffing, we're also reducing the hours of operation at our facilities where there is low or no activity, especially during the midnight to 5 a.m. shift.

Does this mean I should give up on my quest to get AVL (Asheville, N.C.) Tower to extend their hours of operation? I've been working on this issue for a long time. You can read about it in my Non-Radar Daze column or my Another Year "Top Ten Safety Problems" list, or even in this article in the Asheville Citizen Times. I'll let the fact that I "went public" about it and included it in my Top Ten list speak for how seriously I view the issue. I can see how closing early will save the FAA money, but I don't see how it will improve safety.

I can't quite figure out how less hours in the Towers is going to translate into more controllers in the Center, either. If they close up TRI (Tri-Cities/Bristol, Tenn.) and GSP (Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C.) an hour early, how is that going to translate into another body at ZTL (Atlanta Center) on the midshift to handle the increased workload? Two Tower hours doesn't add up to eight Center hours, does it?

Truth Impairment

Yeah, I saw the "right-sizing" comment. I didn't miss the mention of part-time controllers and split shifts in the report, either. For those who aren't reading between the lines, perhaps this quote from the report will help make things clearer.

"There are a number of challenges ahead:

...

  • Upcoming contract negotiations. The FAA will be negotiating a new contract with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) in 2005.

...

As I said earlier, I realize that some of you are going to view this article through the prism of labor-versus-management. I can live with that. It is (and is going to be) part of the process. While the prism you look through will color the way you see this crisis, the important thing is that you take the time to look at it.

Color Means Light

In most of my articles I intentionally stay away from the labor/management-relations arena. It's really not that hard to do, in that I'm not involved in the traditional turf of LMR: negotiations. My position, put simply, is that safety isn't negotiable. In addition, I know that you'd rather read about the nitty-gritty details of ATC; and, quite frankly, that is what I'd rather write about. But this issue is going to affect every one of those details.

I didn't form that opinion after reading the FAA's report, either. As I told you in VFR In A Vacuum:

I bet I've refused more requests for VFR advisories in the last year than I did in the previous 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.

As I also explained in the article, it doesn't take long -- working in those conditions -- before IFR traffic is affected too.

Looking for Light

Lies, untruths and half-truths only flourish in darkness. They will not help us find our way out of this crisis or any other. I have several ways of saying it but I firmly believe that my best interests -- as a controller, a safety rep, and a public employee -- are best served by serving the public's best interests. It's the main reason I agreed to write for AVweb and it's the reason I wrote this article.

The only way to serve the public's interest is to have an honest and open discussion with the public. When I find myself on an airliner sitting in the dark next to John Q. Public and he's shaking his head in disbelief ... well ... something is wrong. Let's face the truth -- together -- and fix this system. After all, "This is your system, you paid for it." I didn't form that opinion just yesterday either.

Have a safe flight.

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


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