AVmail: Sep. 20, 2004

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Reader mail this week about Rep. Weiner's GA screening bill and AVweb's Reno coverage, and more comments about the letter from controller 'Jane Doe' and NATCA President John Carr's rebuttal.

GA Screening Bill

Rep. Weiner clearly doesn't go far enough (NewsWire, Sep. 13). He should include private cars and trucks in his ban from cities of one million or more. Plus all truckers, bus drivers, train drivers, boaters and their passengers should be subject to rigorous security checks. We should ban anyone with packages more than 12 inches on a side.

The point is not that General Aviation is not a threat. Of course General Aviation is a threat, as is every other activity in America. We don't close down our highways due to the thousands of deaths and life-altering injuries each year. That would be unacceptable to the majority of Americans. I don't doubt for a moment that at some point someone will take a GA airplane do something awful with it. If we try to convince our fellow citizens that it will not happen, then when it does, we have no credibility. Instead we must convince them that we have struck a good balance in protecting and facilitating an important asset to the country.

We also need to educate the country that passing a regulation only harms the well intentioned unless we have the means and the commitment to enforce the regulations by force. What good is a ban if we cannot or will not shoot down violators in time to prevent an attack on every city over one million? What good is a ban on over flying power plants if it only takes five minutes to enter and attack the plant and we have no means to prevent it? We clearly need to focus our efforts to secure GA aviation elsewhere.

A popular toast over the years has been "Confusion to our Enemies." Terrorist around the world must be loving the self-inflicted confusion and damage they have created in our country. The example of New York City sticking its chin out after 9/11 and telling the world that they would not be intimidated is a beacon to us all. That a New York Congressman should introduce such misguided legislation is a blow to the spirit of the city we look to for inspiration to help get us through these trying times.

Roger Rowell

Cows Munching Planes

Perhaps if Tony Cooper and Lisa Kingscott had done some gliding with one of the many gliding clubs in Britain they would have learned that no self respecting glider pilot would dare to leave a fabric covered aircraft in a field of bovines (NewsWire, Sep. 16).

For decades an item near the top of the glider pilot's checklist for off airport landings has included check no cattle in the field. In earlier years many a sailplane had to be re-covered because doped fabric trumps grass for lunch.

Duncan Marshall

Reno Coverage

I admit my bias, I live in Fallbrook -- but where is the coverage of one of the most interesting airplanes at Reno (NewsWire, Sep. 16)? The Phantom bi-plane built and flown by long time bi-plane contender, Tom Aberle. It is the most bizarre execution of aerodynamics you have ever seen, and that's just the prop. Take a look at that airplane, it's really different. Not to mention very fast!

Doug Dwyer

Editor's Note

Sadly, for budget reasons we have limited coverage at Reno this year. There is a Web page about the Phantom, but if anyone has a photo of it at Reno 2004, submit it to our Picture of the Week.

Kevin Lane-Cummings
Columns & Features Editor

Controller Age Restriction

Regarding the story, "NATCA Opposes Lifting Controller Age-56 Limit" (NewsWire, Sep. 16):

There is no reason that a controller cannot continue to do his job beyond the 56th birthday any more than a pilot cannot do his job past age 60 so long as he can pass the physical and wants to work.

The age 56 restriction came about as a negotiated deal between the FAA and PATCO during contract talks back in the '70's. It has nothing to do with health, capabilities or anything else. It is a back room political deal, nothing more.

"Is fraught with considerable problems of controller health, manpower distribution, and the general safety of America's flying public."

Baloney. The age 56 restriction just started to kick in about a year or so ago. Very few controllers have yet to be affected by it. There is a long history of controllers staying until well into their 60s that would seem to indicate that this is not necessary. What age to retire is as variable as the controllers' personalities. Some should go well before their 50s. Others are like the Energizer Bunny. It all depends on the individual. Age 56 is still pretty young in today's society. People routinely work into their 60s and some even 70s. There are no limits on senators or congressmen, presidents, judges, police, firemen, lawyers, truck drivers, generals or any number of jobs. In fact, in any field but aviation this requirement to retire by a certain age would be carried throughout the courts for age discrimination.

The current crop of union leaders are afraid that if the age 56 cap is lifted then eventually somebody might get the idea to change other parts of the retirement program such as eligibility to retire at any age after 25 years of actual air traffic control (staff time does not count) or at age 50 with at least 20 years of ATC service.

Allowing a controller to stay beyond age 56 does not mean that everyone must stay. You can still retire if you want to under the other provisions of the retirement program.

NATCA is right on one point, though: Keeping older controllers will not help the looming staff shortages. Eventually we all will retire and it takes four to five years to train a controller.

Don Purney
ATCS (age 55)
Chicago Air Traffic Control Center

Controller "Jane Doe's" Letter & NATCA's Response

Editor's Note

This week we received three dozen letters to the editor about the ongoing saga of "Jane Doe's" comments (NewsWire, Sep. 9) and NATCA President John Carr's response (NewsWire, Sep. 13). This is more letters than we've gotten on any subject for a very long time, and we appreciate the interest and efforts of those who wrote. Many correspondents either vociferously agree with Jane's assessment or violently disagree. This time, though, we'll mostly publish letters either addressing John Carr's comments or those of last week's AVmail letter writers.

Kevin Lane-Cummings
Columns & Features Editor

AVweb reported (NewsWire, Sep. 13) that NATCA President John Carr said,

"If controllers seem to Anonymous as arrogant, it's because controllers are taught to be right, 100% of the time, in 100% of the decisions that they make. Such training creates a certain foxhole mentality in towers and radar rooms, but it is no different in other high stress, high tech and high-pressure occupations, like police and firefighters. Is there a certain mental toughness required to perform the job? Absolutely. Is that something you want when you are hurtling through space in a Pringles tube full of jet fuel at five hundred miles an hour and someone else is making life and death decisions for you? I think so."

When I am hurtling through space in the pointy end of that tube, nobody else has the right or responsibility for making decisions for me. As Pilot In Command, my authority far exceeds that of the air traffic control specialists (yes, traffic control specialists, not controllers as they like to call themselves) on the other end of the mike. After all, if they do make a mistake, and I don't catch it, they may feel bad, they may get a few days off for "stress" and maybe they'll be on Valium for a while. Too bad. Meanwhile, they'll throw six feet of dirt in my face and shake their heads over how stupid I was to fly into the mountain.

I was there in 1981. The atmosphere around Chicago was tense -- a tension caused by the arrogant controllers. The vectors we received were excessive and unnecessary. We were constantly told -- by the controllers, on the freq. -- that if we thought this was bad, just wait to see what would happen if a strike occurs -- it'll be chaos. Well, it did, and they lost their jobs because they broke the rules. The old professionals came out and worked the scopes. I'll never forget the comment one United captain made as we were all heading for the "Heights" on the way to ORD. He said, "If this is chaos, I certainly hope it lasts 'til I retire."

The ATC system as it's currently run is run for the convenience of the controllers. Look at some of the charted arrival and departure procedures. No pilot in the world would have ever devised procedures like those. They are complex and confusing. They work fine for the controllers, but they up the pilot's workload. Who is this system supposed to serve? The guy in the air-conditioned room that can take a break or the guy in the pointy end of the aluminum who has to see it through to completion?

I haven't bought the "stress" of the ATC jobs for the last 30 years and I'm not about to do an about-face now.

Name Withheld By Request

My air traffic career (en route controller, supervisor, staffer) dates back to 1982. Based on what I've seen, I don't think it matters whether your "Jane Doe" is a controller or not ... she knows what she's talking about. In fact, four hours time on position is quite high, based on my observation. The notion that controllers spend two hours a day on "other duties" is pure fiction. (Although I agree with the flight service specialist who wrote in; theirs is substantially higher.)

Before you or your readers condemn FAA management, consider that for five years under the guidance of Administrator Garvey air traffic managers at all levels were frustrated at every turn when attempting to steward the public trust. It was common knowledge at that time that there were instances when union reps, even in low-density facilities, picked up the phone and called Ms. Garvey directly if they didn't like the manager's action in a matter. The manager's decision was overturned within hours. It was so bad that the joke was Ms. Garvey's first name was an acronym for Just Another Natca Employee. It was the grossest mismanagement of government trust I've witnessed in 22 year of civil service.

Fortunately, that changed with Ms. Blakey's appointment. One of the first stories we heard about her was that she showed Mr. Carr the door when he attempted to negotiate with her, which was appropriate. He negotiates at a lower level now.

The change back to something that resembles sanity and responsible stewardship is coming more slowly than many of us would like to see. But the cat is out of the bag -- I believe today's leadership will negotiate responsibly. FAA management is getting a handle on the specifics of what is happening in the field, a solid first step to implementing change. No doubt about it, the ship has begun to turn.

There are a lot of good folks in the union, but the integrity of the leadership is questionable. I think the tone of Mr. Carr's response validates Ms. Doe's caution. Sounded like he'd like to tar and feather her and run her out on a rail, didn't it? Geez Louise! NATCA's best defense is a good offense, and they become righteously indignant when anyone dares question their actions or motives. Someone wrote it is the union's job to fight for entitlements. I agree, so long as they don't pretend they care a whit about "turning granny into a thin pink mist." In a letter to NATCA members, Mr. Carr wrote that he couldn't care less about the financial incentives the FAA has offered to reduce operational errors, to increase safety. "We spend more than that on cable and porn," he wrote. (Yes, that's right, we have to bribe controllers to separate airplanes these days.) I think Mr. Carr has made his position clear time after time after time.

Maybe a controller shortage is what we need. As far as I'm concerned, there are 15,000 more where this bunch came from. If the FAA is such a sorry employer, maybe they should try their hand in the private sector. I personally think some of these "civil servants" could use a few years off the government teat. Those PATCO guys sure lined up to come back, didn't they? That ought to say something about the kind of employer the FAA is.

Name Withheld By Request

John Carr said:

"If controllers seem to Anonymous as arrogant, it's because controllers are taught to be right, 100% of the time, in 100% of the decisions that they make ..."

After reading this rant from Mr. Carr, I think it safe to say that Jane Doe's claim of controller arrogance is self-evident, at least within the ranks of union officers. Despite his delusions of grandeur, someone else is not making life and death decisions for pilots. Every instruction received from ATC (notice I didn't just call them controllers) is scrutinized by cockpit crews, who ultimately have the responsibility for the safety of that jet-fuel-filled Pringles can. To believe that controllers actually control those little blips on the screen is a dangerous operational attitude; were this actually the case, we would not have had to recently memorialize the events of 9/11. Just because when ATC gives instruction it usually translates into the tagged blip following that instruction does not mean that they are the puppet master and planes and pilots the puppets. Pilots follow the instructions because those are the rules under IFR and because we all want to get where we are going in the most efficient and safe manner possible; that means everybody has to cooperate and the middleman to this cooperation is ATC. If ATC starts to become operationally questionable during a flight, pilots have the option to say, "Cancel IFR/radar service," the aviation equivalent to "look Ma, no hands!" Then that little blip will just wander off on it own without the guidance of ATC. Egad!

Again from John Carr's Letter:

"Anonymous will respond to emails from you, but fears her peers. What I say to Anonymous is, "have no fear. Call me directly." My number is 202/628-5451 and if anonymous, or any of your readers, wish to discuss these matters further, I would be more than happy to oblige."

The sophomoric tone of his response to Anonymous should not instill her with any confidence the above quote holds any truth. NATCA is sounding a lot like PATCO these days; perhaps the former should heed the sanctimonious thud the later made during Reagan's tenure.

Todd Nelson

My response is to the Senior Manager in Technical Operations who has so much insight into the controller workforce that he felt compelled to give his input (AVmail, Sep. 13). First off, I can't believe that you would even print a message from someone like that who has no direct knowledge of the demands on the working controller. His knowledge obviously comes from the days when he walked around with a screwdriver or other high tech tool to repair a piece of equipment the controllers use.

I wouldn't begin to judge how many technicians it takes for certain tasks because I have no training for that job. I wonder how this gentleman knows what needs I have for my job, what staffing requirements are for any particular shift, does he receive briefings from the weather service to determine what the weather will be during the day which has a direct bearing on the number of controllers required to cover that shift? The answer to all of those questions is no! He needs to evaluate his side of the operation and leave ours to the people who are trained to make those decisions. I wouldn't be surprised if it isn't just another case of an individual unhappy with the pay that controllers receive. In the future, AVweb, please print responses from knowledgeable individuals who actually know the facts.

Feel free to print my name. It's unfortunate but not surprising that the knowledgeable Senior Manager requested to remain anonymous, just like Jane Doe.

Jeffrey Frye

OK, don't believe us (the controllers). See what happens in the next three to five years when facilities are working with less than half their authorized staffing due to retirements. I can go now, and if the FAA b.s. continues, I will.

Can you say, "Slot Reservations"? Or, "ATC Delays"?

Richard Bruner Smith

I have been an Air Traffic Controller for more than 15 years. Jane Doe's letter is quite to the point, whereas, John Carr's, is way off base. I guess the old adage of "a best defense is a good offense" is the Union's way of defending the indefensible.

Union management is no longer attempting to support the Union membership. They are only attempting to satisfy their own needs. Ask Mr. Carr when was the last time the he worked traffic? The Facility Representatives (FACREPs) receive 24 hours of "Union Time" per pay period, but every Union representative above that level receives 40 hours per week of "Union Time". This means that they do not even have to show up at their assigned facilities ... ever! The FAA Orders and Regulations require that in order for a controller to maintain certification, they must work a minimum of 16 hours every 30 days. Even a Staff Specialist at a facility must work a minimum of eight hours every 30 days in order to remain certified. This is extremely difficult, to say the least, when you are never present at your assigned facility!

The FAA has tried to enforce a policy that union time may be taken, but that the FACREP must remain at the facility so that they may be called back to Operations in case of staffing or traffic considerations. The Union has fought this tooth and nail, mostly because "Union Time" is not used exclusively for Union business. It is not uncommon for "Union Time" to be used for golf, vacation time, picking the kids up from school, etc., and the FAA allows these abuses to continue because the Union screams ULP (Unfair Labor Practice) and/or grievance whenever the subject is broached.

There are even instances within the FAA, where Union Representatives have gone to school to obtain college degrees on "Union Time"! The Union abuses are long and infamous (if not notorious), it's just too bad the the IG (Inspector General) has been thwarted in the efforts to stop these abuses.

Mr. Carr is usually articulate and to-the-point when he is dealing with Union business, but I guess when faced with the actual facts concerning Union abuses and prevarications, he can't justify the Union's or his actions. As far as Jane Doe allowing her name to be used, if she still wants to work in any ATC facility, I hope she never allows people to know that she wrote that letter! Her work environment would be very unpleasant!

Name Withheld By Request

I would be a great controller, but ... current FAA policy limits hiring of new controllers to people 30 years old or younger.

If a controller shortage really does loom, perhaps the job could be opened to elderly applicants in their 30s.

Greg Sheffield

Editor's Note

The problem doesn't seem to be a lack of qualified applicants. If there is (or is going to be) a shortage, it would need to be solved by the FAA speeding up hiring and training. And that's why this debate is so pertinent: If there isn't a shortage, the FAA can use that training money elsewhere; if the shortage looms close but new controllers aren't hired, it will be several years of pain until the new controllers get through the training pipeline.

Kevin Lane-Cummings
Columns & Features Editor

Now for another episode of "Mr. Carr's Neighborhood":

Children, someone named Jane wrote a very nasty letter. I wrote a very nice letter to tell her that she was bad and possibly mentally ill. Can you say "con-de-scend-ing"? Sure, I knew you could.

Steve Justice

Read AVmail from other weeks here, and submit your own letter to the editor with this form.