Monday, April 02, 2007

Public Safety

I’ve tried, the best way I know how, to point out what wonderful public servants we have within the ranks of air traffic controllers. In that I was once a controller myself, I try not to gush about it. I try not to oversell it. I don’t want to sound self-serving. But I don’t want you to miss the point either.

Unless you’re “in the business” you miss the significance of much of it. The information comes in dribs and drabs. It’s hard to piece it together. That is one of the reasons my column on AVweb was so popular. It gave me the forum to stitch it all together for folks. And yes, in case you haven’t heard, I stopped writing for AVweb. Sorry if that disappoints anyone. No drama to impart. AVweb and I are still friends. It was just time to move on.

Back to the story. Let me stitch together a few pieces for you. I call your attention to a previous posting on this blog: NexCon. In it you will read, “At the bottom of the page you’ll find this quote: ““Without NextGen there will be gridlock in the skies.” I’ve got a real problem with the concept of “gridlock in the skies.” While “gridlock in the skies” is theoretically possible it’s almost irrelevant. In air traffic control, gridlock on the ground is the problem. “

I got a nice email from a controller that read it, pointing me towards his own blog: NAS Confusion. Under the post, No Parking Zone, you will find this image. For those that aren’t controllers, an English translation reads: Traffic Management Unit Advisory -- Stop all COA and BTA (particular airlines) departures to Newark, NJ . Don’t let them depart due to “gridlock” at the gates at Newark. (The “gates” are where the aircraft park to let you walk to the terminal.)

In other words, long before the “skies” became “gridlocked”, the gates -- the airport -- became gridlocked.

While you’re at NAS Confusion, you might want to read You just got overrestricted . It’s a good explanation about how we use the system to keep airplanes separated.

I got another email from my “cousin” in Alaska. Knowing him like I do, I know he doesn’t like the spotlight. But we share the same last name and he’s been in the ATC safety business forever. Those of you that can figure out who he is from that info need to shake his hand. He’s one of the best in the business, with a wit sharper than a razor. Don’t be surprised if he uses it to cut you when you shake his hand. He really doesn’t like being the center of attention -- even if he deserves to be.

Anyway, he sent me a NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System alert. ASRS sends these out when they believe a problem is serious enough to need immediate attention. In other words, they don’t wait for their usual analysis and publication schedule. They get it out fast. The gist of the report reads as follows:


Again, a translation into English. Aircraft from a certain company (ACR X) are slowing themselves down or speeding themselves up -- without informing the controllers -- in order to avoid gridlock at their gates. That makes perfect sense from the company’s perspective. If you’ve got a gate tied up and an airplane that needs to use it is inbound, he can slow up, save gas and give the airplane at the gate time to clear the gate.

Let’s think about how this would work with automotive traffic on the interstate. Brand X has a truck that is about 20 minutes out off Atlanta on I-85. The company dispatcher calls up the trucker and says, “Hey Ralph, the loading dock won’t be open for another 25 minutes. Can you slow it down so the parking lot doesn’t get jammed up ?” And Ralph slows down to 45 MPH on I-85 , about 20 minutes out of Atlanta. See the problem ?

Now, imagine your “truck” is an airliner flying at 300 knots and slows down to 250 knots. In a cloud. With no brake lights. Any questions ?

There are two lessons I would like you to take from this. First, there hasn’t been an accident related to this problem. I’m not even aware of an Operational Error (a loss of standard separation) caused by this problem. Yet. The system is incredibly safe because it is so robust. The trick is to keep it that way. Second, I want you to see how complicated it is to keep it that way. You can deduce both (partially) from just looking at how attention is being drawn to the problem.

First, somebody had to notice the problem. It probably happened several times before someone figured out how it became a problem. A controller probably noticed an airplane being overtaken by the aircraft behind. He may or may not have had time to figure out why but I assure he fixed the immediate problem. He would have assigned speeds to both aircraft. Then one day, the right combination of people got together and had an extra moment to figure it out. A controller had the time to ask “Why did you slow down ?” and the pilot said “Our company asked us to because our gate is still occupied.” More questions and an explanation probably followed. Then whomever (probably a controller), took the time to fill out a safety report and sent it to NASA ASRS. The good folks at NASA ASRS recognized it as a serious problem and sent out their alert.

This could have taken weeks if not months. As a matter of fact, I heard of a similar situation occurring before I retired, four months ago. I’d heard through the safety jungle drums that a another outfit was doing the same thing. Supposedly, their dispatchers were trying to “meter” their flights by asking the pilots to fly at various speeds so as to space out their arrivals the way they wanted them to arrive at the gates.

Can you see the problem ? Brand X has one plan, Brand Y has another and nobody bothered telling the controllers -- the guys that are supposed to implement The Plan. The controllers with The Plan are supposed to integrate Brands A through Z, yet “X” and “Y” (and probably “L” and “N,O,P”) aren’t playing from the same page. Instead of playing beautiful music together we’re making a bunch of noise and yelling at each other.

Where’s the conductor ? Well, she’s a little busy right now. After telling the first chairs they were a bunch of spoiled prima donnas, they up and retired. She didn’t bother filling their slots because she’s not about to pay anybody else what she was paying the first chairs (the ungrateful bums.) She’s now finding out that virtuosos don’t grow on trees and you can’t grow one overnight even if they did. So right at the moment, she's explaining to her benefactors why there are so many empty chairs in the orchestra and the music sounds a little “off.” (Wait until they peek behind the curtain and find out that half the lighting and sound technicians are gone too.)

You can read about it over at The Main Bang.

”While Blakey was furiously at work bailing water on her Titanic with a teaspoon nobody within lying distance was buying any of it.  She was there to talk FAA Reauthorization but she spent most of her speech doing political damage control and trying to salvage the tattered remains of her term.  She failed miserably on both counts.  The Administrator was also obviously trying to scuttle the boat, so to speak, laying blame in equal measure around the room in anticipation of the collapse of the national airspace system her appalling policies and dreadful decisions have almost certainly guaranteed.”

I hope by now some of you are scratching your head and wondering about why a single little glitch in the National Airspace System is having to run through the NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System to get solved. It’s an awfully convoluted, time-consuming procedure to solve such a simple problem. Actually, it’s much simpler than you might think.

This is straight from “the book”.


5-3-3. Additional Reports

a. The following reports should be made to ATC or FSS facilities without a specific ATC request:

1. At all times.

(e) Change in the average true airspeed (at cruising altitude) when it varies by 5 percent or 10 knots (whichever is greater) from that filed in the flight plan.


It sounds so simple doesn’t it ? How does it go so wrong ?

It’s just plain old, everyday human nature. We focus on what we consider to be the “big problems” and forget to take care of the details. When the “big problem” in your life is how you’re going to pay your bills after your pay is cut, you find it difficult to pay attention to the details. When your company is fighting for its survival in the new business environment, it’s hard to find time to deal with the details. When your priority is a political ideology, the day to day details seem unimportant by comparison.

They aren’t. If you fail to take care of the details in this business you’ll have a bigger problem than bills, profits or ideology.

To focus on the details you need competent, motivated people. That usually translates into “well paid.” You also need a stable business environment. Or at least an environment that doesn’t promote destructive competition like the current one. And last but not least, you need a good leader. One that can leave the political ideology at the door and focus on the Public's safety.

If your government loses focus and pays more attention to politics than public safety...If business fails to remember that their profits depend on their customer’s safety -- don’t panic just yet. The pilots are still focused. Their lives (and yours) depend on them staying focused. And the individual controllers, God bless ‘em, they’ll do everything within their power to make sure a disaster doesn’t happen on their watch. The system uses this last line of defense -- self-preservation and fear of failure -- to ensure public safety. The powers that be use it to abuse the system and their employees.

If doesn’t matter how many pay cuts and abuses people suffer, they’ll do everything within their power to make sure nobody dies. FAA Administrator Blakey isn’t the first Administrator to count on that simple fact. Sadly, she probably won’t be the last.

Don Brown
April 2, 2007

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