Friday, June 01, 2007

The Morning After

The National Airspace System (NAS) is dangerously close to collapsing. No pill is gonna cure this ill, either. Much like the rest of our national infrastructure, the NAS is suffering from years of neglect and misguided policies. And while the current Administration can’t be blamed for all the ills, they’ve done more than their fair share in creating them.

Unlike much of the infrastructure, the NAS can’t be readily rebuilt. Much of the NAS is human-centered. In other words, it relies on air traffic controllers, technicians and pilots. We can build bridges and highways. Building an engineer takes a little longer. But engineering is an old and well understood profession. Aviation isn’t. Air traffic control, perhaps the least of all.

Those that have read my previous writings know that I believe the loss of “institutional memory” in the 1981 PATCO strike was devastating to the profession. Just as we were on the road to recovery, we’re losing most of our best and senior controllers again. Once again, this isn’t unique to air traffic controllers. I remember when the FAA began “downsizing” Airways Facilities (AF.) AF is the FAA’s technicians. I call them magicians because of the job they do. Their skills aren’t nearly as unique as their knowledge. You can train a large pool of people to be a radar technician but there aren’t that many experienced radar technicians to do the training. The FAA, in typical fashion, put the cart before the horse. They started getting rid of their radar technicians before they got rid of their radar. Our radar sites haven’t been the same since. (Note: The FAA just signed a contract to extend the life of their enroute radars another 20 years. Whoops.) It isn’t the people that are so unique (although they are quite an elite), it’s the knowledge that they possess -- the “institutional memory.” It’s priceless. It’s also, largely, gone.

Many want to think building a computer-based NAS is the way to go. It is to some degree but who is going to build it ? Your garden-variety computer programmer doesn’t understand air traffic control. We’ve seen this movie. Trust me, you won’t like the ending any better the second (or third) time around.

The concept that NASA and the FAA is currently selling (NEXGEN) is a mathematical and computer programming tour de force. The people that designed it are geniuses. They’re also ignorant. Well, at least about ATC. Don’t take my word for it. Ask the experts. Ask the controllers. You know, the ones that have sat behind a radar scope (as opposed to a desk) for 25 years or more. Every time we see the NEXGEN presentation we sit politely and look back and forth at each other with the “are these guys for real or are they just crazy ?” look.

The guys giving the presentation are smarter than the vast majority of controllers I know. They’re way smarter than me. They just don’t know much about the practical side of air traffic control. We can’t call them stupid (they aren’t) and we don’t want to embarrass them in front of a crowd, so we just smile and nod.

The only people that have the knowledge to automate ATC are the folks that understand ATC: Air Traffic Controllers. Most air traffic controllers don’t have the expert knowledge to write the programs needed to automate ATC. And most don’t have the technical capabilities to design a transponder or the comparable technology needed to advance the system.

When you have the time, I want you to settle in and read Squawk 1200. It’s a short story about what happens when the technology wizards and the controllers get to talk to each other. It’s history. It’s important. Learn from it.

If you’ve made it this far into this post, I’m really counting on you to do it. There won’t be many of you that are interested and have the capacity to understand the subjects being discussed. Look for insights. See what the controllers didn’t understand. See what the computer programmers didn’t understand. Look at the political realities. Notice the bedrock -- the facts that can’t be changed no matter how much things change over time. No matter what the technology. (Hint: runway acceptance rates, space, time, etc.)

Which brings me to the main point of this blog entry. FAA Administrator Marion Blakey’s term of office is set to expire in September 2007. It’s time we start thinking about how to clean up this mess. We should be looking for a new Administrator now. One of the political realities I was talking about is that President Bush will get to nominate the next Administrator. Another is that the Senate will have to confirm the appointment.

It’s as good a place as any to turn this thing around. The war between the FAA and its employees must end. The gradual destruction of the NAS must end. Many wrongs have been committed upon the employees of the FAA by their own government. Pensions lost, careers ruined, promises not kept. We cannot afford another haphazard 25-year-recovery, as after the PATCO strike in 1981. The system simply cannot survive it. We must right the wrongs, address the grievances and correct the mistakes. We must build an organization -- a new FAA -- worthy of the greatest aviation system in the world. It will take the cooperation of all parties.

There will be a morning after. We need to prepare for it now. Right now.

Don Brown
June 1, 2007

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