Say Again? #59: Dear Chip

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On January 1, 2006, Warren "Chip" Jones replaced Don Brown as the Facility Safety Representative of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) at Atlanta Center. Don will continue his work as a Safety Representative for NATCA while he prepares for his upcoming retirement. Don's column this month is his advice letter to Chip.


Say Again?

Dear Chip,

I hardly know where to start. But I must, so I will. As I've told you a hundred times before, this is a thankless job. So, let me start with one of the few times you'll get thanked by a controller for doing it. Thanks for taking on this burden. It's an important job and I sincerely believe you will do well.

The fact that the president of our union can tell the public that we run "the safest air traffic system in the world" is simply invaluable. In that it actually is the safest in the world means that your job consists mostly of protecting it instead of improving it. Don't get me wrong, there is room for improvement. But with our truly outstanding record, there isn't that much room. It's just that you won't get to do much improving unless someone gets serious about spending money in the FAA. The only way that will happen -- that money will be spent in the right places -- is after we fail. Your job is to make sure we don't fail. It's the Catch-22, the Gordian Knot, the paradox of being a safety rep.

Because, fail we shall. It's inevitable. No person, no system, is perfect. I view the crux of this job as putting off the inevitable for as long as possible. Preferably, after our lifetimes. I feel lucky we haven't been involved in a mid-air collision at Atlanta Center in my career. I hope you're as lucky in your career. And yes, luck plays a part in it.

Safety is Our Service

When I was still in training I saw my first near mid-air collision. It was virtually duplicated a few weeks later. The same spot, the same situation. Believe it or not, I consider us lucky to have had them. It finally scared everyone enough that we started using the arrival and departure gates at CLT (Charlotte, N.C.) Please note that arrival and departure gates don't appear to help the efficiency of the operation (although they actually do). They only appear to help the safety of the operation.

That situation epitomizes one of the major problems you will face. Atlanta Center has always been focused on "customer service." That focus often comes at the expense of safety. The only reason we were reluctant to use the arrival and departure gates was because we perceived it to be a disservice to the customer.

It will take most of your career for the culture of Atlanta Center to fully comprehend that we are now the busiest Center in the country. This much traffic will require more procedures and more airspace structure, not less. There will be less and less of what many controllers perceive as "service" -- a shortcut. Somehow, we lose focus of the fact that the number one "service" we provide is safety. All other services pale in consideration.

Be an Advocate

This system is so safe that folks tend to take it for granted. Don't let them. You have one job and only one job: Safety. I cannot overemphasize this point. There are a million considerations to be taken into account in operating this system. You only have one: Safety. There are more than enough people looking at efficiency, pay, labor/management relations (LMR), technology, productivity, politics and all the others. I realize that all of these must be taken into account and that people will fight for these interests. Let them fight for their interests. You fight for safety.

Most of the time you'll feel like the Lone Ranger. You aren't. There are hundreds of people just as involved in safety as you and just as passionate. If you need advice or guidance, the best place to start is NATCA's National Safety Committee. I've met them all and I've known most of them for years. You won't find a finer group of controllers anywhere. They've "been there and done that" and will graciously ease your way. And don't forget Don Schmeichel from Region X is a member of that committee. If Don doesn't know about a piece of equipment he'll know somebody that does. You'll find yourself talking to technicians and engineers on a regular basis. You'll also find Don and his fellow members to be just as passionate about their jobs as we are about ours.

Educate

I guess it's time to get down to specifics. Just to save space, I'll refer you back to the original "Top Ten" list I made after I took this job. Not much has changed. Staffing was, and still is, the number one problem. I haven't changed my mind about it. Virtually all of our problems start there. Fixing the staffing problem won't cure all of our problems but we can't solve most of the others without it.

I will put a new slant on my list, though: Education. This may seem like a roundabout way to get there but stick with me a moment. Take a good look at all those new trainees in the control room. What do you suppose they're thinking? Okay, besides worrying about graduating, keeping their jobs and what kind of car they'll buy when they check out. When they're thinking about being an air traffic controller, what is one of the first questions that pops into their head?

I bet it is this one: Who's the best controller? Who knows their stuff? Who do I want to be like when I become a controller? Think about that for a moment. This isn't the NBA where everyone knows that they want to "be like Mike." That thought begs the question: "Who is the Michael Jordan of air traffic control?" The answer is that is neither you, nor I, nor anybody else knows. To answer that question we first have to define "best." We -- as a profession -- haven't.

Is the "best" the guy who puts the most points on the scoreboard? What about rebounds? Defense? If we can't define these things, how are we going to teach them? Right now the only quantitative measure I can think of is how many operational errors a controller has had. To abuse this analogy a little further ... is the only yardstick we have (to judge a controller by) the number of turnovers he's had? The number of fouls? What about putting the ball in the bucket?

In order for us to teach what is important -- to educate -- we first have to decide what is important. And that brings up another issue. Who does the deciding? Right now there are hundreds (if not thousands) of pilots reading this. Do we want them deciding what is important? How about the airline execs? Do we want them to decide what is "best?" Try this one on for size: Do you want computer programmers deciding what is best?

Hope Isn't Enough

You knew I'd work the User Request Evaluation Tool (URET) into this conversation somehow, didn't you? In that you already know my feelings on the program (and I plan on writing a separate column about URET), I'll let it go except for this one point: URET forces you to use a completely different set of habits than the ones you use with flight progress strips. The habits you need to work with strips will decline to the point of uselessness, using URET every day. And flight progress strips are the backup to URET. Even the FAA says so:

FAA Order 7210.3T -- Facility Operation and Administration

6-7-7. URET OUTAGES

a. In accordance with Chapter 8, NAS En Route Automation, and the requirements in this chapter, URET facilities shall develop and maintain procedures for transition to and from URET operations.

NOTE -- The back-up for URET is flight progress strips.

I was reading a particularly thoughtful post from a pilot the other day. It concerned the lack of situational awareness when the computer screens in his cockpit went blank. He summed up the situation nicely: "Hope is not an out."

Ill Thought-Out

While I may have to leave the URET problem for your generation to solve, there is one problem I plan to cure quickly: The sick leave "abuse" letters. I think I'll write B.B. King and see if I can't change the words of his song to "Baby, how dumb can you get?"

You and I both know that there are probably some people in our building that "abuse" (whatever that means) their sick leave. We also know there are circumstances controllers face that other government employees (who earn the exact same amount of sick leave) don't have to deal with. The FAA has decided to overlook that factor and, in the process, they lost sight of their primary mission: Safety.

I didn't have to listen to all the stories about other people that have received sick leave abuse letters to figure it out. All I had to do was look at my own sick leave "abuse" letter. The FAA didn't ask me any questions. They didn't ask why I called in sick. They didn't do any investigation. They just plugged their numbers into a spreadsheet, looked for a "pattern" and started handing out letters in a wholesale fashion -- somewhere around 70 letters so far. Add that to the current environment at the FAA (firing the controllers at New York TRACON, decertifying controllers in the West, etc.), plus the fact that our LMR folks have successfully had several of these letters rescinded already and I'm left with one conclusion: The FAA is trying to intimidate controllers and prevent them from calling in sick. Like I said, just how dumb can you get?

Just as surely as we know that somebody, somewhere, has abused their sick leave, we know that the FAA will be successful in intimidating some controllers with this latest tactic. They will come into work sick. How would you like a sick air traffic controller working your airplane? As I told the unfortunate soul that gave me my letter so he could pass it back up the chain of command, "If you think I'll stand for this -- if you think I'll let a sick controller work an airplane with my kids on board -- you have lost your mind."

The temptation for controllers to come into work when they're not at their best is already strong. The last time I almost had an operational error was after I only got an hour or two of sleep the night before. I wasn't "sick," I just couldn't fall asleep. I (of all people) should have known better, but I went to work anyway. I don't like leaving the other controllers to work short-staffed and thought I could just "tough it out." I was wrong. I'm lucky that I wasn't dead wrong.

(Update: They rescinded my sick leave letter right about the time I finished writing this column.)

The Bully Pulpit

There is a reason the contract says, "... incapacitated for the performance of (his/her) duties ..." instead of just "sick." For the FAA to suddenly require nearly a fifth of our work force to get a doctor's note every time they use sick leave doesn't enhance the safety of the system. It just bullies people into making a bad decision. Yes, that is the term I want to use: Bully.

Creating a climate of fear and dread in the workplace doesn't promote safety. I know how much the FAA appreciates "Congressional interest" and I feel fairly certain Congress won't look favorably on people that learned their management technique on the playground during third-grade recess. I don't like bullies. I bet the taxpayers don't, either.

It occurred to me that I have a bully pulpit and now, so do you, Chip. If I have to use mine to fight this latest nonsense, then I will. And if I have to spend the few, final days of my career "preaching" this "sermon" in the halls of our government until I find somebody to right this wrong, then that is what I will do.

I took a few moments to research the term "bully pulpit" and I thought you might be interested in the term's origin. Turns out it was coined by President Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt, that is. President Roosevelt thought the Presidency was an excellent "pulpit" from which to "preach." He used the term "bully" in the positive sense, as in, "Bully for you." The Press turned the term around to infer that Roosevelt was "bullying" his opponents from his "pulpit." You can't control how people will receive your message, Chip, but "preach" you shall. And that brings me to the final and most important thought I want to leave you with.

Honesty

In all things, you must be as honest -- as truthful -- as humanly possible. Sometimes, brutally so. Every tool you have as a safety rep -- the only power this position gives you -- hinges upon your credibility. Guard it carefully. It's one reason I am so insistent about following "the book." You can't tell people that this is what the book says and then, with a sly wink, tell them it is really done another way. It isn't honest. Nor is it truthful.

Many people will tell you it can't be done -- that you can't operate by the book. They are wrong. You can. I've spent the last eight years proving to myself it could be done. If it works in the busiest facility in the world, then it will work anywhere. "The book" is not infallible. Humans wrote it and occasionally they get it wrong. If you find something that is wrong -- that something doesn't work -- then work to correct it.

If you follow this advice, you will make a great discovery: The AIM, the 7110.65 and the other supporting publications are incredibly well thought-out. It doesn't appear that way to those unfamiliar with them -- quite the contrary. At first glance they appear confusing, chaotic and often contradictory. But if you will work to decipher them and follow them-- not just to the letter but also in the spirit in which they were written -- you will find that they represent the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of this profession. You will also learn that some of that knowledge was gained at a truly horrific cost.

Telling the truth is the very foundation of what we (as controllers) do. It's one of the first things I always tell a trainee, "Never, ever, lie to a pilot." Our entire relationship is based on the simple concept that we will always tell them the truth. They must have faith that when we say, "Descend and maintain 4,000" there isn't a 5,000 ft. mountain below them. If they ever lose that faith in us -- if we ever lose their trust -- the system simply will not work.

Your effectiveness as safety rep is based on the same principle. You will be addressing many technical issues that are beyond the understanding (or experience) of people who aren't controllers. Just as you will be dealing with issues that are beyond your understanding. Piloting, engineering and computer programming are but a few of them. You must be as honest and forthright with them as you hope they are being with you.

The Power of Truth

Above all, you must be able to tell the "truth to power." This is, by far, the toughest part of the safety rep's job. You must be able to tell those in positions of power the truth. While "truth" and "safety" are universally popular in concept, in reality, they are often viewed as obstacles impeding progress. Or worse, safety can get in the way of somebody making money.

The plain, cold, hard truth is that safety is expensive. Very expensive. It isn't just the cost of the backup systems and the training, but it is also the perceived costs. Those arrival and departure gates at CLT I was talking about "cost" each airplane 10 to 30 extra miles of flight time. When you add up that "cost" at all the hubs, you can forget millions -- you're talking billions of dollars.

One day you'll find yourself in a meeting where "the next great idea" is being discussed. It might be a local, regional or national meeting. It could be with the local executive board or the Facility Manager, the president of our union, an airline CEO or even a Senator. Somebody in the room (if not everybody) will have the power to make your life miserable if not the outright power to take away your position as safety rep or even your career. Consensus will be sought and your opinion will be sought last. Trust me on that point. Safety may come first but "the next great idea" is usually popular and it always involves money. Your position means you're the most likely to object, so you will be asked last.

It takes courage to say "No" to the guy that can fire you. The more power the individual has, the harder it is to tell them the truth -- a truth they might not want to hear -- and the more courage it requires. When you find yourself in need of that extra courage -- when that moment comes -- I want you to remember this one thought:

You serve the American Public. They paid for the system we operate. They pay our salaries. They have even provided a system where you can speak the "truth to power" without too much fear of retribution. I've said this to the NATCA membership for years and (to borrow a famous phrase) I believe this truth to be self-evident. Serving the American Public's best interests is in our best interest. If you are acting in their best interest -- honestly and truthfully -- you will find all the courage -- and support -- you will ever need to do this job.

With my very best wishes and sincerest gratitude,

Don Brown
Safety Representative
National Air Traffic Controllers Association


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