Say Again? #32: Another Year

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While other pundits are making New Years' resolutions, AVweb's Don Brown is looking back -- back to when he first became a safety representative for NATCA - the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Sadly, the safety problems he noticed then still haven't gotten better.

Say Again?

Well here we go. Another year gone. Another page turned. This New Year's, I spent a lot of time thinking about my upcoming retirement (less than three years away). It seems too early to start looking for another job, but in reality I guess it's never too early to start dreaming. Hope really does spring eternal.

My problem with dreaming of the future is that I always look at the past as my yardstick. As most of you know by now, I'm a firm believer in history. And old sayings. History does indeed repeat itself. Inevitably, when I start dreaming of my future, I have to look at my past.

In terms of my professional life, I find looking at the past to be rather painful. For instance, I was discussing my future career options with my wife the other day. In responding to the question, "What do you want to do for a living?" the oddest answer popped into my head. I want a job with a concrete sense of accomplishment.

She thought that somewhat strange. I thought you might also. After all, why shouldn't a controller feel a sense of accomplishment every day? Most of us do to some degree, of course. But in the long-term there is little to hang your hat on.

As an example, I decided to dig out a copy of a letter I wrote when I first became the NATCA safety rep at ZTL (Atlanta Center); it's entitled "Top Ten Safety Problems at ZTL." I won't bore you with the entire document (trust me, it's not a masterpiece or anything), but I did want to go over the highlights so you too can be frustrated by how much hasn't changed.

My Old Top Ten

1) Low Staffing

Lack of staffing is still the root of all evil in ATC. It touches everything. That includes me as I was trying to work five sectors by myself just last night.

2) The Radar Team Concept

As I said in the original letter, "Implementation of The Radar Team Concept is nothing short of a disaster at ZTL." The good news is that it isn't such a problem anymore. The bad news is, the reason it isn't such a problem is that there isn't any "team." At least at ZTL, we work by ourselves most of the time. See #1 above.

3) Inadequate Training

If airline pilots ever get a true sense of what constitutes "refresher training" for air traffic controllers these days, there's going to be a riot. We might get an hour in the "simulator." Per year. Maybe two. The reason is simple. See #1 above.

4) Bureaucratic Inertia

I'm not sure I need to explain that one to anyone that has ever dealt with the government, but one of our main problems is our inability to solve any problems -- at least in what I would consider a reasonable time frame. Because I wrote this list in 1998, I'll define "a reasonable time frame" as five years.

5) Frequency Congestion

Seeing as about half my articles touch on this subject, I probably don't need to go into much detail, do I? But knowing me, you know I just can't let it go. How did we replace the single word "request" with "any chance we can get ..."? As in, "Center, any chance we can get direct Newark?" Being on the land line (see #1 above) when this happens and having to get back on the radio and say, "Say again, I was on the land line," just leads to more frequency congestion.

6) Unreliable Equipment

A glimmer of hope in a sea of depression. Much of our old equipment actually has been replaced. There is still much to be done, but I'll try to stay on the bright side. DSR (Display System Replacement) and VSCS (Voice Switching and Control System) have been dependable systems.

7) Automation-Strip Processing, GPS, ARTS VFR, etc.

It's another good news/bad news situation. Nothing has been fixed. We still have strips; it's just that nobody uses them much anymore. (See #1 above.) Some Centers now have a system called URET (User Request Evaluation Tool). It's been used to replace strips in most circumstances.

Me, I'm a stick-in-the-mud. I still think there's something wrong with the automation when it puts a C-150 and a BE20 (King Air 200) in the system with a true airspeed of 130 knots. I also think something is wrong with the system when the 20 sectors prior to mine don't notice the D328 (Dornier 328) with the filed true airspeed of 180 kts. When I wrote the 13-minute time update on my strip (that nobody uses any more), it dawned on me that the time shouldn't be off by 13 minutes. That led to me look at the filed true airspeed and noticing the error.

That process of connecting the dots -- time update, writing it on the strip, noticing the error -- is what makes a system. It probably doesn't interest you any more than it does most other people. Unless, of course, you disappear from the system one day. Then it will probably interest you. Thirteen minutes is a long time to go missing in the ATC system, just because we think you're going much faster or slower than you really are.

I'll spare you the rant on Lat/Longs in flight plans. Just in case you missed it and are quivering with curiosity you can read about it here.

8) Approach Control Services On Midnight

This issue still gives me the willies. That's due in large part to the fact that we take over Asheville (AVL) Approach's airspace on the midnight shift. Procedure turns, holding patterns in lieu of a procedure turn, and non-radar may not scare you, but ask your typical airline pilot and Center controller when was the last time they worked under those conditions. "Uhhh ... just after midnight when I was dead tired," will be the answer. Enough said.

9) North Area Frequency

Curses! Foiled again! This was supposed to be an item in the plus column. Situation solved. Well it was solved. But it's back and we can probably expect more. In today's wireless world the entire population is broadcasting on some radio frequency or other. There's a very interesting web site run by a gentleman that I met at Communicating for Safety last year. Just to pique your curiosity ... two words: vinyl welders.

10) Maiden Radar

Good old Maiden. It's still out of service about twice a month. You can read more here in case you're interested.

The Score Card

If you weren't keeping your own score, I'll be generous and say that 2 out of 10 problems were solved. Unfortunately, new equipment doesn't stay new and we'll always have frequency problems crop up from time to time. Do you see what I mean about the sense of accomplishment?

If I was just your plain-old garden-variety controller you might think that this stuff wouldn't bother me. After all, it's not in a controller's job description to fix frequencies, secure adequate staffing or buy some new radars. But it bothered me before I became a safety rep and it will probably bother me after I cease to be one.

My level of aggravation isn't very important in the greater scheme of things. What is important is the state of affairs in the FAA. How the Air Traffic System runs affects not only the morale of controllers but also the well-being of millions of passengers. It has serious implications for our national economy. And it affects safety.

Problems, Problems and More Problems

As you well know, I could go on for pages about the problems controllers face on a daily basis and how that affects you as a pilot. I've been writing these columns for well over two years and I haven't run out of material yet. On the contrary, my biggest problem every month is deciding which subject to write about and trying to find the words to explain subjects that tend to be rather complicated.

I still don't believe I've discovered the way to capture the attention of the people who need to be paying attention. I'm not sure anyone can.

A Christmas Story

I swear I'm not making this one up. It's Christmas morning. It's 6:45 a.m., to be exact. After 22 years of (mostly) faithful service to the FAA, I'm working my least favorite sector -- Pulaski and Salem combined up -- on Christmas morning. There are two bays of strips; that's about 36 airplanes scheduled to be in the sector within 30 minutes. And I'm on two different frequencies.

I'm working with a brand new D-side (data controller), trained under the new and improved method (see #2 above). That means we don't work well together as a team. He's talented, but he was just trained to work differently than I was trained.

Anyway, as we get busier and busier, it never dawns on anyone that we might be busy. It's Christmas morning, for crying out loud. We're not supposed to be busy; we're supposed to "be of good cheer" and all that stuff. So every airplane that checks in figures that they're the only working stiffs flying on Christmas morning.

Good morning Atlanta Center and Merry Christmas. This is good-old Airliner 123 with you at 310. It's nice and smooth and we we're wondering if there's any chance we could get direct to DAS?

That works really well with 15 airplanes on two separate frequencies. I really enjoy transmissions stepping on each other before 7 a.m., too. But, what the heck ... it's Christmas. I plod along as we get further and further behind, trying to maintain my good cheer. About 25 transmissions later I've had enough.

Airliner3523, climb and maintain flight level three one zero.

Up to three one zero how are the rides up there?

The Grinch

Did you notice the lack of a callsign in the readback? I did. All of a sudden I'm the Grinch. I don't accept readbacks without a callsign. What this pilot didn't know, what I didn't know, and what my D-side didn't know, is that another plane from that airline was on one of the frequencies, too -- with the callsign 3533. We were so busy we'd failed to notice the similar callsigns. And the other aircraft was waiting on a clearance to climb to Flight Level 310 too.

Dare I say it? Yes, I do. Can you imagine what that headline would look like on the day after Christmas? "Near-miss over Dollywood" I can dream of a lot worse. I bet you can too. There are some places in the world where they don't have to dream about it. Their nightmares came true.

The moral of this story? Christmas magic and good cheer don't keep airplanes separated. Good operating practices do. Safety doesn't get to take a holiday. Just ask the controller who had a "deal" (operational error) later that day. That's right. Somehow that lump of coal got put in his Christmas stocking.

Human Nature

It isn't cool to use your callsign everytime? If you can't bring yourself to do that, then can you use your callsign every time you read back a clearance?

If I ever take the time to rewrite my Top Ten Safety Problems List, I'm going to make the answer (or lack of an answer) to that question my number one safety problem. Why can't we humans make ourselves do the things we know we're supposed to do?

I don't think the smartest guy on the planet (and it's probably a woman anyway) has the answer to that question. It's universal. I was driving over to the Waffle House the other night for dinner and noticed I didn't have my seat belt on. Did I put it on? Certainly not. I spent 10 seconds rationalizing and justifying not putting it on instead of taking two seconds to put it on. Fearless, death-defying coolness? Or just dumb? It sure feels dumb writing about it.

Cool or Fool?

That's pretty much how you feel, as an air traffic controller, when you have to listen to your tape after a deal. You thought you were being so cool. Right up to the point that you let two of them get too close together. Then you don't feel so cool anymore. Been there, done that. The FAA doesn't even give you a T-shirt. Cheapskates.

Apparently it is just too uncool to say "niner," too. You probably don't need a lecture anymore than I want to sound like I'm giving one. But what is it? Yeah, I don't have the answer to why I don't always do the things I'm supposed to do either.

Anybody Got a Map?

So where do we go from here? Well, a few things are certain. First, we're going to be short of controllers. That is a given at ZTL. Second, there aren't any easy answers. If I can sink on Christmas Day before my first cup of coffee -- if we can have an operational error on Christmas Day -- then it can happen on any day. The airplanes are going to fly and safety will have to be factored into the equation.

Frosty the Privatization Man doesn't really have any magic. Santa's elves aren't building any special toys in the workshop that will solve our problems. Our problems will have to be solved the old-fashioned way. With sweat and toil.

Are We There Yet?

Which leads me to my final point. It really isn't a question of how we are going to solve our problems as much as it is who is going to solve them. I've tried and, God willing, I'll keep trying. But my time is almost over.

How about you? Are you willing? Are you just starting out or is your time about up, too? How about your kids, then? Come on, stick with me here, I'm serious. Have you ever tried to instill a sense of public service in your children? I know you think this kind of stuff is supposed to come from the President or Governor or anybody but a civil servant, but I haven't seen much of that happening lately. Somebody has to ask.

Believe me, we do important work. It's challenging, too. We need good people. And not just controllers. We need technicians, staff, managers and administrative people. Don't you think your government should have some of "the best and brightest" working for you?

Think about it. It's an idea that deserves a lot of thought. I'd write more but most of you are smarter than I am anyway so I think you can figure it out. Besides, I just got called in for overtime and I've got to run. (See #1 above.)

Have a safe flight.

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