Say Again? #52: Changing Culture

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Good pilots know better than to make a special request of ATC when flying in busy airspace; if the controller doesn't actually tell you off, then you'll hear the annoyance in his voice. But do you really know which areas are busiest? Things have changed and it's only going to get worse, as AVweb's Don Brown tells us in this month's column.

Say Again?

It's time for us to have a heart-to-heart talk again, folks. Time is short. This is the last summer we're going to have before the really big retirement wave of controllers start. That would be in January of 2006 if you want my opinion. It's already started, of course. It isn't going to hit all at once. But that is when I think we're going to really start feeling it.

At Atlanta Center, things start out the same way every year. Traffic drops off in January. By the middle of the month we start feeling a little guilty that we ever complain about this job. When the traffic drops off, staffing is good and there aren't any thunderstorms, things run pretty smooth around here. By February, we'll have a couple of tough days but that just keeps it interesting. In March, the thunderstorms start showing up and the grumbling in the control room increases in direct proportion to the rumbling outside.

Things keep going downhill, so that by June, they don't pay me enough to do this job. Especially if I'm working an evening shift. If I can get a day shift and get out by 3 p.m., I have a chance of missing the chaos created by the thunderstorms. If I have the evening shift, I'm just going to have to sit there and take it.

It Doesn't Matter

This brings up an issue that is so simple -- so fundamental -- that people just don't give it any thought. With apologies to Yogi Berra: It doesn't matter until it matters. It's not a problem until it's a problem. I really don't care how long-winded you are if you're the only one on the frequency. Chat away. I don't much care how sloppy your phraseology is, either. It isn't a big deal if I can't understand your readback (as long as you don't descend into the dirt, that is). Otherwise, mumble until your heart's content.

Think about it for a moment. Is back-taxiing down a runway such a big deal? What does it matter -- if you're the only one out there? The simple answer is that it doesn't. But if somebody else it out there -- and you combine it with poor phraseology, poor radio discipline, some bad weather and some bad luck -- you can get 583 people killed.

When was the last time you were the only user of the National Airspace System?

Shades of Grey

If only things were that black and white. They aren't, of course. In January, when traffic is light, we can pick up some bad habits and still slide by. By June, those same bad habits can prove to be disastrous. But that won't explain everything, either. It's still not quite that simple. Over time, a culture develops in large organizations. That culture can work well for years and years without much change. Then, seemingly overnight, it just doesn't work anymore.

That is where I believe the controllers at Atlanta Center find themselves these days. We've always taken a lot of pride in our pilot-friendly reputation. I recognized that we couldn't continue to live up to that reputation a few years ago. But I think about these things more than most: It is part of my job, but it's mostly my nature. Although most controllers don't think about the job as much as I do, I believe the guys I work with know it's coming, too. They don't want to admit it -- even to themselves -- but they know it.

Pride Goeth Before the Fall

If you haven't figured out where I'm going with this yet, answer this question for me: When you think of busy airspace, what facility do you think of? New York? Chicago? Los Angeles? I bet you're thinking of the Towers and TRACONS, too. Centers probably don't even cross your mind, much less Atlanta Center.

It's understandable from a pilot's perspective. Takeoffs and landings are the high-workload periods for pilots, so it's just natural that it "feels" busy. And then there is the radio chatter. Turning departures on course, sequencing arrivals and clearing people for approaches requires a lot of radio transmissions. Not only do you "feel" busy, it "sounds" busy, too. If the truth be known, everybody is busy.

How about when you're in cruise -- at altitude? Are you busy then? Do you "feel" busy? What I want you to see is your response -- as a pilot -- to the perception of "busy." Do you adjust how you fly to your perception of how busy a controller is? Tell me: The last time you flew out of New York, did you ask each controller for "direct some place down the road" every time you checked in on a new frequency? When a controller at Southern California TRACON says "descend and maintain," do you come back with, "Is that at pilot's discretion?" When O'Hare Ground says there is a 20-minute delay, do you argue with them about it? On the frequency? I bet you didn't do any of those things, because you assume it is too busy.

Now, about that assumption: Have you taken a look at a list of the busiest airports lately? (Try to guess the top five before you look at the list.)

50 Busiest FAA Airport Traffic Control Towers
Airport Operations
(in thousands)
Control Tower and State
Jan-Dec 2004 *
Jan-Dec 2003
1 Chicago/O'Hare Int'l., IL
2 Atlanta International, GA
3 Dallas/Ft. Worth Int'l., TX
4 Los Angeles Int'l, CA
5 Phoenix Sky Harbor Int'l, AZ
6 Denver International, CO
7 Minneapolis-St. Paul Int'l, MN
8 Covingtion/Cincinnati Int'l, KY
9 Las Vegas/McCarran Int'l, NV
10 Detroit Metro Wayne Co., MI
11 Houston/G Bush Intercont'l, TX
12 Van Nuys, CA
13 Philadelphia Int'l, PA
14 Charlotte/Douglas Int'l, NC
15 Miami International, FL
16 Newark International, NJ
17 Memphis International, TN
18 Salt Lake City Int'l, UT
19 Lambert-St. Louis Int'l, MO
20 Phoenix-Deer Valley, AZ
21 Orlando/Sanford, FL
22 Boston/Logan Int'l, MA
23 La Guardia, NY
24 Washington Dulles Int'l, VA
25 Denver/Centennial, CO
26 Pittsburgh International, PA
27 Santa Ana/John Wayne, CA
28 Seattle Tacoma Int'l, WA
29 Metropolitan Oakland Int'l, CA
30 Long Beach/Daughtery, CA
31 Daytona Beach Int'l, FL
32 San Francisco Int'l, CA
33 Chicago Midway, IL
34 Seattle/Boeing Field, WA
35 Honolulu International, HI
36 Orlando International, FL
37 Baltimore/Wash. Int'l, MD
38 Prescott/E. A. Love Field, AZ
39 Anchorage International, AK
40 Tulsa/Riverside, OK
41 John F. Kennedy Int'l, NY
42 Grand Forks International, FL
43 Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood, FL
44 Mesa/Falcon Field, AZ
45 Pontiac/Oakland Co. Int'l, MI
46 Portland International, OR
47 San Antonio International, TX
48 Cleveland Hopkins Int'l, OH
49 Washington National, DC
50 Tucson International, AZ
* Preliminary as of: 01/31/05
From the FAA Administrator's Fact Book (March 2005)

Did you have Dallas ahead of Los Angeles before you looked at that list? Better yet, can you tell me what Center works the airspace over the fifth busiest airport in the country? Would you believe Albuquerque Center? Albuquerque? You mean to tell me that some guys in Albuquerque Center might be busier than me at Atlanta Center? After all, Charlotte (CLT) only ranks 14th, and that is the big traffic generator in my area of Atlanta Center.

But hey, Charlotte works more than Newark. Miami works more than La Guardia. And Salt Lake City works more than Boston. Even if you know these things, do you act like it?

Acts of Perception

Perceptions affect the way we act. If any of you have ever had the displeasure of driving on the Atlanta Interstates, you know that unless you are driving 70+ mph you're going to get passed. A lot. I've talked to several commuters who admit to reaching speeds of 90 mph on a regular basis. Those same people, when they get on roads with less congestion, actually slow down.

Does this make any sense to you? It doesn't to me but I assure you it's true. The perception is that if you don't "keep up with traffic" in Atlanta you'll get run over. The culture has developed over the years (encouraged by a lack of law enforcement) and people regularly engage in a practice that they'd consider unsafe in any other circumstances. Perception doesn't match reality.

Perception vs. Reality

Back in the days when controllers could ride in the cockpit of airliners on familiarization trips (a.k.a., FAM trips) we regularly noticed this phenomenon: As soon as the airliner climbed past 10,000 feet there was a collective deep breath taken in cockpit. Whew! Out of the danger zone. It's time to kick back and relax. We're in wide-open spaces now. Let's see if we can get direct somewhere. I assure you, that perception is still alive and well. But does it match reality? Ever hear of regional jets?

Sure you have. You read the news just like I do. That's the latest rationale behind airport congestion: Airlines are flying smaller airplanes more often. Well, yes, they are. But where do those airplanes fly? They fly in the Flight Levels. We've taken a lot of airplanes that used to fly below FL180 and put them up high with the rest of the airline world. And our operational errors reflect that trend. I was looking at the tally board of Atlanta Center's operational errors the other day and noticed the vast majority of them occurred in the Flight Levels. Does your perception match reality?

Repeat the Question

Let me ask the same question with a different emphasis. Where do the regional jets fly? Would it surprise you to know that we actually have to put airplanes in trail for Greer Approach these days? Have you ever even heard of Greer? It's the Approach Control for the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport (GSP) in South Carolina. I had a controller come up to me and ask me when we were going to get a STAR (Standard Terminal Arrival Route) for GSP. Good question. I asked for one at least three years ago. I told the airspace office that -- while they were at it -- they might as well start working on ones for Knoxville, Tenn. (TYS).

"Knoxville? Have you lost your mind, Brown? Knoxville doesn't need a STAR." True. They didn't at the time. They still don't. But by the time we get one, they will. I was looking at TYS the other night and guess what? They had more airplanes than CLT. No, TYS isn't as busy as CLT is on a regular basis. Neither is GSP. But they are getting busier. And busier. It's only a problem because we don't have the tools in place to handle the volume. It's never a problem until it's a problem.

There are all kinds of things to notice on that list of the busiest airports. Did you notice the growth at Washington Dulles (IAD -- 366,000 to 503,000)? IAD is right next to Baltimore and Washington-National. Sounds sort of like La Guardia, JFK and Newark, doesn't it? Do you think Potomac TRACON will be the next New York TRACON? Don't forget to factor in the Air Defense Identification Zone -- I'm sure that improves the controller's dispositions (not to mention their workload).

Busy is as Busy Does

Let's get back to perception vs. reality. Do you have two modes of flying -- "Busy" and "Not Busy"? I know most controllers have two modes of working airplanes. If it isn't busy they'll kick back in their chair and talk at a nice easy pace. If it gets busy, they "belly up" to the scope, start paying close attention and start talking like an auctioneer.

I'm sure many of you have heard this phenomenon on the radio. Quite a few of you have complained about it over the years. Talking fast isn't conducive to good communications. It is, however, human nature. "Monkey see, monkey do" is human nature too. Take a listen next time you wind up on a busy frequency. Watch the pilots start talking faster as the controllers start talking faster.

Controlling Nature

We spend our entire lives trying to control our nature. If we didn't, I'd be eating sausage, eggs and biscuits (with gravy) for breakfast every morning. The thought occurs to me that perhaps I should just skip talking to all male pilots and send my articles directly to their wives. At least for me, my wife seems to do a better job of controlling my less desirable traits than I do.

Drifting back on course, there is another fact of human nature that comes into play : Habits. I said it in my very first article and I'm still convinced it is one of the great truths in Air Traffic Control, Aviation and Life:

You can have good habits or you can have bad habits but one thing is for certain, you will have habits.

Controllers (and I suspect pilots) believe that they can work two different ways -- busy and not busy -- but they're wrong. I've seen it over and over again. I see it in myself on a daily basis. Because everyone gets defensive when their faults are pointed out, let me point out one of my own to give you an idea of what I'm talking about.

I talk too much on the radio. It's been a problem for me since the day I strapped on a headset. It's not a problem until I get busy (and then it's a problem). I like to think I can stop when it gets busy (Busy vs. Not Busy) but if the truth be known, I don't. Time and time again I've found myself wasting time on the frequency when it was busy. Time that I could ill afford to waste. It's become a habit. A bad habit.

A Stitch in Mind

I suspect that by now quite a few of my readers are feeling lost. I know (for many) this article seems like random bits and pieces so far. If you'll take those bits and pieces and sew them together, you'll see the fabric of this system we all use. You'll get a glimpse of the culture -- the human side -- of the National Airspace System.

Let's see if I can stitch it together for you. How do you know Chicago TRACON is busy? It's simple: We tell you they are. Let's face it -- unless you're a controller, you don't have any idea what makes a controller busy any more than I have an idea what makes a pilot busy. I only know a Cessna 172 pilot shooting an ILS is busy because that is what I'm told. "Single pilot IFR is demanding." Especially without an autopilot.

How do you know you'd better sit up and pay attention if you're flying into New York? Again, it's because of what you've been told. There are dozens of stories about pilots that caused a problem (intentionally or unintentionally) and wound up being vectored to "the back of the pack." It even made it into that movie "Pushing Tin."

How do you think these facilities got this reputation? More to the point: Why? Again, the answer is simple: They are busy. They can be the nicest guys in the world (and, having met quite a few, I can tell you some are), but due to the demands of their job they can't afford to do the things that pilots perceive as "nice." The way their systems are structured doesn't allow them to issue pilot's-discretion descents. It doesn't allow direct routings. There isn't time for a pilot to argue about a clearance, so they simply don't allow an argument. Over the years they've found various and assorted ways to enforce this.

These cultures didn't appear overnight, either. It took years for them to evolve and they never stop evolving. As the term suggests, evolution is a slow process. And that is what I want you to see about your perceptions. Perceptions evolve slowly, too. Your perception of which facilities are busy is going to lag behind reality. Human nature being what it is, we are reluctant to accept new realities.

Busy, Busier and Busiest

New York, Chicago and Los Angeles aren't any less busy than before. But there are other places that are reaching -- and even surpassing -- their levels of traffic. As the population centers continue to shift -- and grow -- the FAA will have to come up with the infrastructure to handle the traffic. Just as importantly, our perceptions will have to change to allow us to operate effectively in these new environments.

As general aviation pilots continue making their way into the Flight Levels -- flying their new turbine-powered aircraft -- the entire industry will have to develop a culture to handle the new reality. Yes, regulations may enter into the picture, but the true enforcement -- the complex mix of human interactions that results in reputations, perceptions and attitudes -- will come from the controllers. Airline pilots will have to come to the realization that they didn't leave the busy airspace behind when they left 10,000 feet. The pilots themselves may not be as busy, but the controllers working the airspace between FL240 and FL410 are working what is arguably the busiest and most complex airspace in the world. Regional jets and fractional ownership have increased the volume, "Free Flight" has dramatically increased the complexity and RVSM (Reduced Vertical Separation Minima) has decreased the margin for error.

Your perceptions may not allow you to understand getting a ground delay at Deer Valley, Ariz., but that doesn't change the fact that Deer Valley and Phoenix handle more traffic than La Guardia and Newark. You may grumble about getting a reroute in Northern Kentucky, but the controllers who handle the traffic into and out of Cincinnati will find a way to make sure you don't do it on the radio. And sooner or later those friendly controllers that are still left at Atlanta Center -- those who haven't retired yet -- will recognize that we will have to trade in our reputation of "friendly" for "busiest," whether we want to or not (see list below).

Have a safe flight.

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

Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) Activity
Aircraft Handled
(in thousands)
Jan-Dec 2004 *
Jan-Dec 2003
1 Cleveland, OH
2 Atlanta, GA
3 Chicago, IL
4 New York, NY
5 Indianapolis, IN
6 Washington, DC
7 Jacksonville, FL
8 Memphis, TN
9 Miami, FL
10 Fort Worth, TX
11 Kansas City, KS
12 Minneapolis, MN
13 Los Angeles, CA
14 Houston, TX
15 Boston, MA
16 Albuquerque, NM
17 Denver, CO
18 Oakland, CA
19 Salt Lake City, UT
20 Seattle, WA
21 Anchorage, AK
22 Guam **
* Preliminary as of: 01/31/05
** Center Radar Approach Control (CERAP)
From the FAA Administrator's Fact Book (March 2005)

Want to read more from air traffic controller Don Brown? Check out the rest of his columns.