Say Again? #63: A Phrase That Fits

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The FAA is trying to be a ''customer service'' organization -- which is all well and good unless some customers get quick service and others get 40-mile backtrack because of how they filed their flight plan. AVweb's Don Brown worries about this and other safety issues in his Say Again column.

Say Again?

I need a new phrase. The ones I know just don't quite fit. There's a growing trend in aviation -- for both pilots and controllers -- and it troubles me: We aren't paying close attention. The "little things" seem to slip through the cracks more often than in the past.

I'll just talk it out and maybe a new phrase will come to me. I have this theory, you see: I figure if I talk long enough (or write, in this case) I'm bound to say something that makes sense.

Attention to Detail

I was working the Wilkes sector yesterday and I had this guy going direct to GSP. Yes, that is an airport. Yes, I still think it's dumb (going direct to an airport) but I can't seem to discourage anybody from doing it and I'm tired of fighting it. Anyway, I hit the ROUTE key on the computer, type in "GSP * 458" and hit Enter. I'll have to explain that, I guess. The ROUTE key tells the computer the following message is a route amendment. GSP is the fix (it isn't a fix, it's an airport) that I want to route the airplane to, and "458" is the computer identification (CID) number of the airplane. Using this function is much easier than the other way to amend the flight (that would be a 6-7-10 amendment, which I won't even attempt to explain) and it has the added benefit of displaying a line across the radar scope, showing what the new route looks like.

I made the entry, and the route line took off to some place out west instead of to the south towards GSP. I intentionally didn't mention the "*" (or "splat") function in the computer entry. The splat overrides all the preferential routings in the computer. This guy filed direct to GSP and it was just a lot less hassle to override the preferential route than to issue the preferential route. But the splat also overrides all the logic checks in the computer program. In effect, when you splat a route, you're telling the computer, "I'm smarter than you and I know what I'm doing."

Yeah, right. Unfortunately, instead of typing in "GSP" for the Greenville-Spartanburg airport, I typed in "TSP." That routed the airplane to Tehachapi, Calif.

Remember how upset all the pilots were when our big, old computers didn't know all the fixes that their little, old, handheld GPS knew? Well, the FAA fixed that. They came up with a workaround to the computer limitations and added some 50,000 new fixes to the database. Now it's possible for us to route airplanes direct to places we've never even heard of. Even accidentally. The program is called NATFIX (National Fix Program.) Now we can route you from anywhere in the country direct to Tehachapi, Calif. Yee-haw! I'm not sure why we would want to do that at Atlanta Center, but we can.

Did you follow all that? Here I sit, rerouting an airplane direct to an airport, knowing I shouldn't, overriding the preferential route that was designed to make traffic flow better, just so I can do something I shouldn't. I wind up rerouting the guy to an airport that I wouldn't route somebody direct to in a million years, because we took out a "logic check" (the inability to route an aircraft direct to a fix 2,000 miles away) that prevented us from doing that just so we could route airplanes direct to places we have no business routing them to to start with. All in the name of "customer service."

Customer Service

That's right. That's what you -- the pilots -- want. I was sitting at the same sector working several airplanes and every one of them was direct to the airport. And it was IFR at every airport. I had one guy come up from the south, direct to HKY. He doesn't get into my airspace until he's 10 miles from the airport. I can't turn him out for the ILS until he's in my airspace or until I coordinate with CLT Approach. I'm too busy screwing up the route direct to another airport (GSP) and re-clearing the other airplanes direct to initial approach fixes (IAFs) to call CLT and coordinate. So this guy just keeps going direct to the airport until I can get back to him and turn him almost 90 degrees for the outbound leg of the ILS. That added about 15 miles to his route. You gotta ask yourself, is this really what you want?

If I drove you 15 miles out of your way on a vector or an airway, you'd be mad about it, wouldn't you? "Hey, Center, when can we get back direct?" If you think that's bad, you should have seen the one I just finished working. He went 40 miles out of his way. He was going direct to the airport, though. Which is exactly what he wanted and exactly what he filed. He got within 20 miles of the airport and decided he needed to shoot an approach. After three time-consuming telephone calls to coordinate it, I had no choice but to make him backtrack 20 miles to get to an IAF, do a procedure turn and then turn back to the airport. I wonder: Did all the times he filed direct to the airport save enough gas to pay for this? How much fuel does a jet burn at 5,000 feet for 40 miles?

I realize it's a lot less hassle to file a flight plan "GCY direct EHO." It might even save you some distance. On some days. It's easier on controllers to route airplanes direct, too. It's a lot easier to say, "Cleared direct Shelby," than it is to say, "Cleared direct Sugarloaf, victor fifty three, Spartanburg, direct Shelby." You have to take the good with the bad, though. Is this really what you want?

The Customer is Always Right

While we're here, let me ask another question. What does the typical "customer" know about Air Traffic Control? Does the customer want a "safe, orderly and expeditious" service or does he want to go direct to the airport? What if those two goals are contradictory?

I live on Dunkin' Donuts coffee. What do you think would happen if I entered the exit lane, went around all the cars waiting at the squawk box at the drive-thru and went straight to the window at the drive-thru? Would I get my coffee faster? Would I get my coffee at all? What would their other customers think of me? Would they be sitting in their cars thinking, "The customer is always right?"

Due Diligence

Let's go back to the NATFIX program for a moment. Again, I'm sitting at the Wilkes sector, being my usual pain-in-the-butt self and I'm using strips. Everybody else is using URET (no strips) but I insist on using them at the Wilkes sector. I get a strip on an airplane and the only fix I recognize in the route of flight is ZEF. ZEF is the airport at Elkins, N.C. The NDB shares the same identifier but is called Zephyr.

The strip on this flight says COI direct ZEF direct to someplace in the Bahamas. Well the Bahamas is southeast of Elkins, N.C., so this guy must be coming from the northwest, right? I have no idea where COI is, though. I don't have enough time to look it up at the moment (we can get rid of strips but we still can't look up a three-letter ID on a computer) so I don't think much about it.

Time passes and I realize that I ought to be working this flight going over ZEF by now. OK ... I'm being a little disingenuous about it. I really didn't know where COI was but I've already got a good idea somebody has messed up (I've seen it too many times already.) After all, why would somebody file direct to an airport (or an NDB) where they weren't landing? (Although, I have seen that done, too.) Anyway, I'm just waiting until the aircraft is overdue in my sector and "the book" requires me to take action on the overdue aircraft.

I pull down the three-letter ID book and look up COI: Merrit Island, Fla. The East coast of Florida to mid-North Carolina to the Bahamas. Kind of a strange route, don't you think? But overdue aircraft are serious business and we need to make sure the aircraft isn't missing. I give the strip to the supervisor (strips are handy like that) and tell him what I think has happened. He'll check it out and make sure. It'd look bad if the pilot was floating in the Atlantic and we weren't looking for him.

The procedures for handling an overdue aircraft are located in Chapter 10 of the FAA 7110.65 entitled "Emergencies":

10-3-1. OVERDUE AIRCRAFT

a. Consider an aircraft to be overdue, initiate the procedures stated in this section and issue an ALNOT [alert notice] when neither communications nor radar contact can be established and 30 minutes have passed ...

Makes you wonder: How long does it take a Twin Cessna to fly from Merrit Island, Fla., to Elkins, N.C.? If the aircraft is overdue in my sector, doesn't that mean he's overdue in all the other sectors prior to mine? Why wasn't anyone looking for him besides me? Like I said, this isn't the first time this has happened.

Since the implementation of NATFIX, this situation arises on a more and more frequent basis. I had a strip on a Blackhawk filed from Moody Air Force Base (in Georgia) to Pope Air Force Base (in North Carolina) the other day. Via Lafayette, Ind. And I wonder if there was a controller in Texas looking for an overdue Baron flying from Pulaski, Va., to Tehachapi, Calif., the other day? Between NATFIX and the way URET handles overdue aircraft and UTMs (Unsuccessful Transmission Messages) it's a real possibility. Whatever the reason, it sure happens a lot these days.

My point behind all this is that, on very rare occasions, aircraft actually do go missing in the National Airspace System. We are required to track them down, make sure they haven't crashed and send the rescuers in if they have. It is arguably one of the more important "services" that ATC offers. If "overdue" aircraft become a common occurrence and controllers become conditioned to the fact that most of them aren't really overdue, it's just one more procedural problem that we don't have the time to check out. What do you think the chances are that we actually will fail to recognize that the one aircraft out of several million actually is missing?

When our generic "customer" asked for this software enhancement -- NATFIX -- was this potential problem recognized? Was it even considered?

The Devil is in the Details

A new thought hit me the other day. When you are on one of these "airport-direct-airport" routings, what do you do about SIGMETS?

"Attention all aircraft: Hazardous weather information, Convective SIGMET 15E for North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia is available on HIWAS, Flightwatch or Flight Service Frequencies."

I'm going to assume that most pilots know which states their route of flight transverses (although sometimes I wonder), but what happens when you listen to the actual SIGMET? Do you know where "20NM NW of Volunteer VORTAC to 30NM SW of Foothills VORTAC to 40NM ESE of Holston Mountain VORTAC to 20NM NW of Volunteer VORTAC" is?

I know that when I clear most pilots direct to any VOR these days they always come back with, "Can you spell the identifier for me, Center?" Even professionaly flight crews are doing this. I think pilots flying direct aren't keeping track of their position relative to VORs, and probably aren't even using an en route chart. So they ignore things like SIGMETs because they can't tell whether they are flying in the area of the SIGMET. They may be ignoring SIGMETS at their peril.

Safe, Orderly, Expeditious

So, about that phrase I'm trying to find. I need something "catchy" that will alert people -- pilots, controllers, dispatchers, staffers, etc. -- that we're in a deadly serious business and we need to be careful, methodical and deliberate. We need to pay attention to the smallest details with due diligence. The phrase has to have a little depth to it, unlike the platitude "the customer is always right." The "customer" isn't always right and in this business, when you lose one, you lose something a little more important than his "business" -- and those flying with him. Permanently.

OK, maybe I'm not as smart as I think I am. I can't come up with anything "catchy." But even if it isn't "catchy", the guy who came up with Safe, Orderly and Expeditious is looking smarter every day.

Have a safe flight.

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.