Say Again? #30: The Little Big Flick

When confused about what you should be doing, it helps to have the big picture. AVweb's Don Brown freely admits he doesn't always have The Big Flick to help him understand why ATC is being run the way it is. But he wonders if those running it (or funding it) have The Big Flick either.


One of the less pleasant aspects of my job is the fact that I occasionally have to work a midnight shift. The biggest challenge for me (besides staying awake) is finding something useful to do. Fortunately my Area doesn’t have a freighter operation (yet) so I spent the quiet parts of the shift trying to gather some thoughts to share with you about some big-picture items.Back in the brown-shoe days, when controllers used to talk about having “the flick,” management was fond of telling controllers that they didn’t have “The Big Flick.” Whenever a lowly controller would question why we were being asked to do something that seemed stupid, the response was, “You don’t understand because you don’t have The Big Flick.” That was probably true in many cases but controllers always suspected it was true of the people that were using the phrase too.All this is just a round about way of admitting that I don’t have The Big Flick. I do have the flick in my own little corner of the air traffic world, though. You and I see what the folks that supposedly have The Big Flick have to say about ATC (and the aviation industry) in the newspaper and other media outlets. This is how I see things from the opposite side of the spectrum.

A Short History Lesson

Air Traffic Control isn’t an old occupation. Aviation itself is just 100 years old. It’s amazing how much knowledge can be lost it that short period of time. I read somewhere that it’s hard to know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. I don’t know if that is true or not but I liked the way it sounded.Where should we start? About 1934 I believe. The first people to operate a tower were city employees. The first people to operate what we would think of as a Center were airline employees. Interesting, no? It is if you remember that “privatization” is all the rage now. Been there and done that. It didn’t work well. The airlines knew it. That’s why they asked the federal government to run it.Two of the major reasons were standardization and financial stability. It kept the rules and regulations for New York the same as they are for Montana. If you think the FARs are convoluted, imagine what 50 sets of State Air Regulations would look like. The federal government also had the financial resources to install the infrastructure nationwide. Private industry didn’t have any qualms about installing equipment in New York but they were a little reluctant to pay for it in Montana.

Send in the Cavalry

Another old idea that has recently cropped up is transferring ATC into the Department of Defense. No, I’m not kidding. If you haven’t been keeping up with the fight over the current FAA funding bill in Congress (NewsWire, Oct. 27), you’ve been missing quite a show. I’ll let others debate about the politics. I’m just mentioning it for the historical context. Prior to the creation of the FAA, the DoD basically ran its own ATC system. The CAA (Civil Aeronautics Administration) ran the civilian ATC system.Most people remember that the Grand Canyon mid-air collision in 1956 sparked the debate that created the FAA. What ended the debate were two other mid-air collisions. Both were military vs. civilian airliners — one in April and one in May. May 20, 1958 to be exact. On May 21st, Senator Mike Monroney introduced a bill that created the FAA.That was the Federal Aviation Agency by the way. It became the Federal Aviation Administration at a later date. In case you’re wondering where I get this stuff, I read it in “The FAA Historical Chronology.” I’m weird like that. I read stuff that just bores other people to tears.

The Trouble with Training

Just yesterday, I signed for a written briefing sheet that stated we could expect more requests from the military for VFR advisories. The reason stated was that there has been an increase in near mid-air collisions between military aircraft operating VFR and civilian aircraft. Why are we getting written briefings instead of getting briefed (verbally) during team training? You know, training in an environment that allows for some questions, discussion and (heaven forbid) some feedback for FAA management.You probably remember me telling you we don’t have the staffing to have team training. So what makes anyone with The Big Flick think that we have the extra bodies to increase our “additional services” workload (see FAA 7110.65 if you don’t remember the term “additional services”) to the biggest user of the National Airspace System?It kind of makes you wonder doesn’t it? It makes controllers wonder. But we don’t have The Big Flick.Obviously, I believe we should be offering these additional services. Even if I didn’t read ancient history, I am a safety rep., so I do read recent history. I know that one of the recent incidents resulting in this new guidance was an F-117 vs. a B757 at the Southern California Tracon (SCT). (You can read about it here.) It’s an important safety service. But how are we going to comply with the policy without the controllers to handle the workload?

Fire On the Mountain

Speaking of SCT and recent incidents, did you catch the news (NewsWire, Oct. 30) that the facility had to be evacuated during the massive wildfires in California? I bet that was interesting. I suspect you’ll be hearing a lot of second-guessing about the FAA’s decision to consolidate several Approach Controls into a single facility at SCT. Instead of a natural disaster wiping out one Approach Control, it’s now possible to lose (in effect) several in one shot.In case you’re wondering how that works, the overlaying Center (Los Angeles Center, in this case) takes over most (if not all) of SCT’s airspace. Talk about interesting: Center controllers working approaches in the L.A. Basin. They made it work (like we always do) but I bet it was a lot like sausage making. I’m glad I didn’t have to watch it being done.If you’re looking at The Big Flick you’d be wondering where Los Angeles Center (ZLA) found the bodies to make it work. But if you’re looking at the “little flick” like me, you’d be wondering how that guy working an aircraft on an approach he’s never worked before was making it work. Did he have the NAVAID depicted on his scope? I’d be willing to bet money he didn’t have the Minimum Enroute Altitudes (MEAs) depicted on his scope. Airways with published transitions to all the approaches would have made it much simpler, but as I’ve ranted before, not many people are filing airways. Not to mention most approach controls airspace is being redesigned seemingly without a thought as to how it would be worked without being able to vector aircraft at the Minimum Vectoring Altitude on a radar scope without a radar map that depicts all the obstacles.It’s doable of course. But everything takes a few seconds longer to make sure the controllers are doing it right. Time is a luxury we never seem to have.

Precision vs. Flexibility

Another Big Flick item that gets a lot of attention these days is precision. Whenever the discussion comes around to Free Flight, Required Navigational Performance (RNP) or any other program that looks to the future you hear about how much more precise the navigational and surveillance equipment will be. For instance, I signed for a briefing (yes, another written briefing) on “Q-routes” the other day. I first heard about these routes at Communicating for Safety last year.As I sat listening to the briefing (at Communicating for Safety) I was just astounded. Using RNP, we’re looking at designing routes that are just incredibly close to each other. Don’t quote me on it but the example I remember was three parallel routes up and down the middle of California. I believe the centerlines of the routes were going to be 8 miles apart. Like I said, don’t quote me on that number.The point is that the routes are going to be very close and the required navigation performance for the aircraft to be able to fly those routes (and remain separated) was going to be very high indeed. Speaking of high, so was the price tag. I believe it was $500,000 for the most sophisticated navigational equipment. Per airplane.Anyway, the guys with The Big Flick were looking at how many more airplanes could be run through the same amount of airspace if we could just be more precise. I, without the benefit of having The Big Flick, was sitting there wondering how this would work during the thunderstorm season into Atlanta (ATL). Three guys on parallel routes inbound to ATL and the middle guy decides he needs to deviate around a buildup dead-ahead.I assume the bean counters aren’t going to shell out a half million bucks and only be able to use the equipment in California. I assume they’ll start looking at Georgia too. I wonder if anyone at ZLA is thinking of how they’ll get the planes into a holding pattern the next time there’s a wildfire at SCT?

Bad Attitude

It sounds like I have a bad attitude about it all this, doesn’t it? That’s something I’d like someone with The Big Flick to explain to me. How do you take a great career — a career that everybody starts out loving — and turn it into a job we love to hate? I don’t think that particular talent is unique to FAA management, by the way. I see the same contradictory emotions in many professional pilots. It does seem as if the FAA has institutionalized it, though.Pilots love to fly. Controllers love to control. Nothing makes my day quite like running a good inbound push into CLT or running a few simultaneous approaches at the Wilkes sector. It’s still a challenge. It’s still exciting. It’s still fun.But it’s become frustrating. Instead of being the exception, the exception now is actually being able to do a good job. I can’t fool myself into thinking I’m doing a good job when I miss a gap on the inbound push or one of the guys on approach blows through the localizer. I don’t feel like I’m doing a good job when a jet levels a 10,000 because I’m on the phone trying to coordinate. It never enters my mind that I’ve saved the taxpayers thousands upon thousands of dollars by working shorthanded. I bet if you’re the guy going through the localizer it doesn’t enter your mind either.

Don’t Mind the Mule — Just Load the Wagon

Have you ever been flying along, listening to a controller that is way too busy, and thought to yourself, “Now that is what I call productivity! I bet he’s issuing 10 clearances a minute. I wonder if we could increase that to 11 a minute so my tax bill will go down?” I didn’t think so. Yes, I know it’s questions like that that makes FAA managers think I have a bad attitude.I don’t think doing a job cheaply will ever provide the job satisfaction that doing a job well provides. Perhaps job satisfaction isn’t all that important in the greater scheme of things. But if job satisfaction isn’t important, the FAA wouldn’t be spending money that they saved on (yet another) employee attitude survey. Or would they? I’m confused.

Cheep, Cheap, Cheep

One thing I’m not confused about: I never hear the word “cheap” used in a serious conversation about safety. You never see “cheap” used in any slogans. It’s not “Safe, Orderly and Expeditious (as long as it’s cheap)” is it? I know that no one in NATCA ever proposed the slogan “Safety Above All as long as it’s cheap.”The only time I ever hear the word “cheap” is when someone is trying to sell me something. Invariably it’s something that I don’t really want and probably don’t need. I guess it’s a good thing I’m a controller because I don’t think I could ever make a living as a salesman.

Older But Not Wiser

I thought that the older I got the more things would make sense. Instead, I find myself confronted with more and more contradictions. These are the kind of things I dwell on during the long nights. I thought wisdom might come with age but I have yet to find any.We are blessed with the finest Air Traffic Control system in the world. How that came to be with the FAA in charge of it may be one of aviation’s greatest mysteries. Controllers are being tasked with working more and more airplanes yet there are fewer and fewer controllers to accomplish the mission. Now we’re looking at the Department of Defense as a solution although they’re already stretched thin.In a contradiction wrapped inside a contradiction, we’re looking at the most “inherently governmental” branch of the government (the DoD) to solve a fight that started because someone decided that ATC wasn’t “inherently governmental.” Precision is touted as the next big thing when Mother Nature and Mr. Murphy remind us daily that we need flexibility.

Civil Service

I guess I really don’t have The Big Flick because I just feel confused. And nothing confuses me more than this: What’s up with all this talk of “acting more like a business” and “customer service”? It makes me nervous because it sounds like someone is trying to sell something. Something we probably don’t want and definitely don’t need. The FAA isn’t a business — it’s the government. Your government. Why would anyone willingly accept a demotion from citizen to customer?I hope some of you will take the time to explain that to me and your other government employees. While we’re still your employees. Somehow I don’t think we’ll be having these discussions once I’m working for a business and you’ve been legislated down to the status of customer.Have a safe flight.

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