Say Again? #61: It's Here!
Some of Don Brown's predictions about safety compromises caused by lack of ATC staffing are starting to come true. And if the number of planes increases (see VLJs) before the number of controllers does, we might see a hurricane of accidents and the FAA may replace FEMA as the agency of ill repute.
Yes, it's coming! But don't get excited. You don't really want what is coming, but you're going to get it anyway. Remember when I wrote Say Again? #49: Come Up a Bad Cloud? Well, the "storm" is here.
They say everybody has a talent. I don't know if you want to call this a talent or not, but this is mine: I predict bad things happening. Maybe it is a talent, or maybe it's just a curse (it sure feels like it). Maybe I play "Chicken Little" so often that I'm just bound to be right some of the time. Whatever it is, I wish I was wrong more often.
As I told you in Say Again? #9: Maiden and Me, predicting bad things is how I got my start in the safety business. In a meeting with the Secretary of Transportation and the FAA Administrator (James Burnley and T. Allan McArtor, respectively), I got a little hot under the collar about the tone of the meeting and I forgot to be intimidated by their titles. I told them what I thought was going to happen and where. And I was right. Well, I was close enough. And speaking of close, so were COA458 and COA703. That earned me a phone call from AT-1, the head of Air Traffic for the FAA (Keith Potts at the time), to apologize for the way we controllers were treated at the meeting. Trust me, when the head of Air Traffic calls the facility to get a rookie controller off the sector for a conversation, it gets the attention of a lot of managers.
Remember Say Again? #31, when I told you if a pilot knows there is traffic to his left it's instinctive to turn right? It didn't happen exactly like I envisioned it but it happened nonetheless. A pilot saw the traffic the controller called -- on his TCAS -- so instead of turning left -- as instructed by the controller -- he turned right. It didn't work out so well.
In that same article I warned you not to use the (nonstandard) phraseology, "I've got him on TCAS." My fear was that all a controller would hear is, "I've got him," and would apply visual separation in a situation where no one had "visual." I just read about that one happening this month, too.
Lest you fear I'll strain my arm patting myself on the back, I know that I am not clairvoyant. I don't even think I'm all that bright. I do, however, read about air traffic control on a regular basis and I think about these things. For instance, I read about a pilot's tendency to turn the wrong way in a post by Chip Jones, my replacement as safety rep at Atlanta Center (ZTL). And then I read this ACAS II Bulletin No. 6: Incorrect use of the TCAS traffic display, from Eurocontrol. You don't have to be clairvoyant or particularly bright to figure out if it can happen in Europe, it can happen here.
Speaking of Europe, I hope you remember this, too, from Say Again? #57: Überlingen":
"If it comes down to working the midnight shift with only two controllers -- and with the current controller shortage it will -- which would you rather have working your airplane: A controller who learned some lessons from the Überlingen tragedy or one who didn't?"
I found myself in just that position, the last midnight I worked. There I was working by myself, trying to work two scopes: the high-altitude sectors on one and the low-altitude sectors on another. There was a southbound airliner on the high-altitude sector -- all by his lonesome -- headed to someplace in South America. His ride started getting bad so he asked for FL310. I was on the low-side scope, working three or four airplanes including one that was shooting an approach. I slid over to the high-side scope, saw another aircraft coming north at FL310 in the next sector and told the southbound flight, "Unable." I'm sure both pilots looked out the window, looked at the TCAS and then looked at each other with a "What's the problem?" expression. Their traffic was about 100 miles away at the time. There wasn't a word being said on their frequency. It was about 2 o'clock in the morning. What would you think if you were them?
I know what I thought: Überlingen. I wasn't about to put two airplanes at the same altitude and "hope" it worked. In other words, I didn't want to come back "later" and see if I'd have lateral separation. All that was missing was the computer being down for maintenance and the phones failing. And I'll bet you before the summer is over one other part of that equation will be in place too. My mid-shift partner (or I) will be on break, there will be some unexpected traffic and we'll be on the backup system. Hopefully the phone system won't fail at the same time.
By the way, those jets passed less than five miles away from each other, at their different altitudes. If I could have monitored both planes the whole time, I could have given the southbound flight FL310 and then vectored both planes around each other. But I really needed to concentrate on the low-altitude sector to keep those folks safe, too.
There I go down the "what could happen" road when I meant to tell you what is happening. The reason I found myself working alone is because the guys I work with -- the controllers on my team -- are getting old. One of my teammates flunked his last physical and the local FAA management didn't want to replace him on the midnight shift. It sounds reasonable, actually. The only way to replace him is to take a person from the day shift and put them on the midnight shift. Then you'd leave the day shift short of controllers. And, as we all know, the day shift is much busier than the midnight shift and it requires more staffing.
If anybody out there actually bought that line of reasoning, it is now time to give yourself a swift mental kick to the appropriate portion of your anatomy. Pay attention: You either have a minimum staffing level or you don't. If your minimum on the midnight shift is three people per Area, then you meet that requirement. Do you think the FAA will let an airliner fly without a co-pilot? Do you think the airline is going to call up and say, "Hey FAA, we're out of overtime money. How about cutting us some slack and let us fly on the midnight shift without a copilot?" Do you think the FAA would even consider it?
I hope you didn't buy the other "logic" within that line of thought, either. You can restrict the system during the daytime, if need be, to match the staffing. But you'd be hard-pressed to keep the traffic any lighter than it is on the midnight shift. The midnight shift at ZTL really is the minimum amount of traffic you can have without shutting down the system completely.
To drag myself back on track: We've lost one controller from my team. Next month we lose another to retirement. We lose another the month after that. I could drag this out, but I'll cut to the chase: By the end of November, when yours truly retires, my team of seven Certified Professional Controllers (CPCs, a.k.a., Full Performance Level -- FPLs) and one trainee will be down to two CPCs and one trainee. That is one team, in one Area, in one Center. There are seven teams (seven sets of days off) in seven Areas (six to seven radar scopes/sectors covering a section of airspace) in ZTL. There are 21 Centers (ARTCCs) in the U.S., plus the CERAPs at Honolulu and San Juan, Puerto Rico. You do the math. Oh, and my team (Sat./Sun.) isn't the senior team. That would be the guys with Fri./Sat. off.
But wait: I have some good news. The FAA is going to save you a bunch of money on overtime. That's right, folks ... I got the briefing just last week. We were told ZTL was going to reduce overtime by 42%. Not 41%, mind you. Nor 43, 44, 45 or even 50% -- but 42%. I wrote it down. The briefing was on March 9. I think it started at 12:30 p.m., but I was late. We didn't have enough people to get me off the sector in time. As a matter of fact, we couldn't brief the whole team at the same time (like we used to do, even after the strike in '81) because we didn't have enough people. That was amusing in and of itself, but the kicker was that the supervisor had to rush the briefing to finish on time.
You see, my shift was ending at 1:30 p.m., and it would look kind-of silly if they had to pay me overtime to brief me that we were going to reduce the amount of overtime used. Well, that and the fact I was due back at the facility by 11:00 p.m. so I could work the midnight shift. So, I wasn't really available for overtime. And yes, that would be the same midnight where we only had two people instead of three. If you'll remember, that was because the third guy flunked his physical. Did I mention the section of the briefing where they said we were going to reduce sick-leave usage too? I'd tell you about it, but then I'd have to tell you the part about increasing morale and, quite frankly, I didn't really understand how that part was supposed to work, either.
I am looking forward to my morale increasing, though. I figure that ought to kick in just about November. November 23,to be exact.
Your Safety Is In Your Hands
I guess by now you're wondering what you -- as a pilot -- ought to do about all this. In truth, I don't have any new advice for you. I want you to do the same things I've always encouraged you to do. My best advice is, has been and always will be, to follow the book to the best of your ability. Stick to the procedures. Think "safety" first. I really don't know of any better advice and I really don't think it's going to change your mind -- one way or another -- if I say it a thousand more times.
This probably won't change anyone's mind either, but let me tell you about some of the other shenanigans I've seen lately. I've mentioned Asheville, N.C., (AVL) several times in my columns and the fact that we take over their Approach Control airspace on the midnight shift. After years and years of trying to get AVL Approach to stay open later and open up earlier, I've pretty much lost hope that I'll ever see that happen. Especially in light of this current regime's attitude about air traffic control.
Just yesterday morning I watched with a mixture of amusement and disgust as a trainee tried to referee the fight about who gets their clearance first among the three departures trying to get out. The guy sitting at the gate has a clearance to depart and the one sitting at the end of the runway can't get out. It's non-radar for us at the Center. We can't see the airspace, much less the taxiways and gates. It'd be amusing except for the fact all this is happening on the same frequency we're using to run the Charlotte, N.C. (CLT) arrivals 15 miles in trail. Vector for in-trail CLT. Issue a clearance out of AVL. Issue another vector for in-trail to CLT. Cancel the clearance out of AVL. Issue another vector for in-trail to CLT. Issue a different clearance out of AVL. Does this sound safe, orderly or expeditious to you?
Remember when I told you about the new GPS airways through CLT's airspace? I should have seen this one coming. I had a guy file BZM.T203.PSK the other day. What's wrong with that? He filed /A. The guy only had VOR-DME navigation capability, but he filed a GPS airway. Now that's amusing. I wonder why he didn't just file direct and put "VFR GPS" in the Remarks section, just like hundreds of others do? When one of them gets cleared for a GPS approach one day and botches it, I bet we won't be amused.
I know I keep promising you an article on the new User Request Evaluation Tool (URET) system one day, but I have to include something here because it's amusing to watch that, too. It's such a poor replacement for flight progress strips that we're doing all kinds of gyrations trying to make it work. We've added a fourth line to the data block trying to help compensate. In the fourth line you can have the aircraft type, the speed assignment, a fix, a heading, an EFC (Expect Further Clearance time) the destination or just about anything else you can dream up.
While you can now put all that neat stuff in the fourth line of your data block, you can't put it all in the data block at the same time. You can show the type aircraft or the destination. You can show the assigned speed and the assigned heading at the same time, but that overrides the display of the type aircraft or destination. There is only so much space so you have to make compromises. Flight progress strips didn't have this limitation. You could see all the information at the same time for every single airplane.
Ivory Tower Meets Tin Pusher
In the mid-1990s a group of human-factors researchers came to Atlanta Center to run an experiment. Controllers would run a problem in the simulator lab, one time with strips and one time without strips. In hindsight, it is real easy to see where they were going with this, isn't it?
The report they issued was appropriately entitled, "How Controllers Compensate for the Lack of Flight Progress Strips." You can download it if you'd like, but I wouldn't recommend it unless you're the geekiest of ATC geeks. Trust me -- the 1.2-Mb Adobe PDF report will bore the average pilot to tears.
Way down in the middle of the report you will find this little blurb:
"The final question pertaining to strips, in general, asked what information would need to be included on the PVD data block in order to eliminate the need for strips. Only one controller said that the strips could not be eliminated."
Would any of my loyal fans like to guess who that "one controller" was? It was this guy (minus most of the gray hair).
I was confident of my position then and I'm even more confident of it now, after having worked with URET for a few months. And yes, I am as alone in holding that opinion now as I was then. In that strips actually have been replaced by URET, you might consider that somewhat odd. We'll see.
It ought to have dawned on you by now that this article adds up to one big "I told you so." I know that doesn't sound charming and probably doesn't even sound very adult. Sorry. It can't be helped. It's my opinion. I really hope I'm wrong but that hope doesn't change my opinion.
This "storm" is no longer a prediction. It's here. The only questions now are where it will hit next and how bad the damage is going to be. It won't pass overnight like a real storm. It will be like a slow-motion hurricane. It will last for years. I don't know if it will breach the levees that protect your safety, but it is a real concern. If it turns out this is "the Big One," don't be real surprised to find out the FAA has been gutted just like FEMA was.
Have a safe flight.
National Air Traffic Controllers Association
Want to read more from air traffic controller Don Brown? Check out the rest of his columns.