Monday, November 26, 2007

Way Up High

Ah, the joys of retirement. It’s raining (thankfully) so I can’t get to that driveway buried in leaves I was telling you about. But I’m still multi-tasking -- I’m defrosting the downstairs freezer while writing this blog. Speaking of which, let’s get back to that story of Matt Wald’s I was telling you about -- The Art of Air Traffic, in All Its Delicate Flow.

As I said, I like the story. I even like the title. Air traffic control is still as much an art as it is a science. I think that will remain true for decades to come. In addition, Mr. Wald has chosen to do a story on the type of airspace I used to work -- mostly high altitude airspace. You’d be surprised how little your typical airline passenger thinks about this phase of their flight. Most of my non-aviation friends still can’t figure out how I could be an air traffic controller and not work at the airport.

The story starts at the “Command Center.” Controllers have a certain inflection when they say “Command Center.” Sort of like Buzz Lightyear might say it. We’re not being fair. The Air Traffic Control System Command Center (as it is formally known) has an important job. And when it comes to “eye candy”, they’re hard to beat.

” But it was not enough. At noon, the center’s manager, Dan Smiley, called up a computer map of air traffic sectors at and above 24,000 feet. Three sectors were red, indicating saturation, and about 20 more were near-saturation yellow. All were clustered over eastern Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Each long, skinny sector held about as many planes as a single controller could communicate with.”

There are two important items in that quote from Mr. Wald’s story -- “red” sectors and the limits of communication for one controller.

“Red” sectors are just normal sections of airspace (or sectors ) where computer modeling predicts there will be a high level of air traffic. In short, the controller working the sector is about to get busy. Real busy. In a “yellow” sector, he’s just moderately busy. If you want to get down to the real nitty-gritty (I’m talking ATC nerd level) you can read about the Monitor Alert Parameter here. There are two things to know about the Monitor Alert Program. It’s a computer program making an educated guess about future traffic levels and...

”d. The MAP value will be dynamically adjusted to reflect the ability of the functional position to provide air traffic service.”

...the “number” that sets off the alert (changing a sector to “red” or “yellow”) can be adjusted. An educated guess is better than no guess (I guess) but it is far from perfect. Again, kudos to Mr. Wald for the usage of “art” in his story’s title.

The second item from Mr. Wald’s quote concerns frequency congestion -- the sheer limitations of how many people can communicate useful information on one radio frequency. I can spend days talking about this subject (and I have) so let me just quote myself. “ I've said a dozen times, that is the biggest bottleneck in ATC: frequency congestion.” (Note to new readers. The link is to one of my columns on AVweb. You have to join AVweb to read them. It’s quick, easy and painless. Oh yeah, and it’s free.)

On some days, talking to 20 airplanes is a breeze. On others -- with thunderstorms, bumpy rides or when trying to keep the EWR arrivals spaced out at 20 miles in trail while they’re crossing the ORD arrivals that need 60 miles in trail -- talking to 20 airplanes is almost impossible. If the Monitor Alert Parameter for your sector is 20 airplanes...some days it works and some days it doesn’t.

Up to this point, I’ve used over 600 words for this blog entry. Mr. Wald only got 695 words worth of space to tell his story. That’s like trying to talk to 30 airplanes when the ride is bumpy and New York wants 20 miles in trail on the arrivals for JFK, LGA, EWR and TEB -- treat as one airport. It’s a tough job and I sincerely mean it when I say he does it well.

I hope my readers will keep that thought in mind when they’re reading a news story about air traffic control. Space in a newspaper and air time on the television is precious. Where you could spend days talking about the details of a complicated story -- you can’t. The truth can’t be found in a “sound bite”. But a good one can lead you to the truth, just as a bad one can lead you astray.

One final thought for the nerd herd -- the guys that actually read the FAA regulations I point you towards. If you’ll notice, the rules are long on collecting information and short on action. As any controller reading this knows, often, the only action taken when a sector is going red is that the supervisor comes down and says, “You’re going red.” (Gee thanks, Boss.) I’d be willing to bet the FAA is a little better about the record keeping requirements in the orders.

Keep that thought in mind -- Action vs. Data Collection.

”c. When a pattern of alerts is established (i.e., same sector, same time frame, on a daily basis or requirement for additional resources to manage on a routine basis) which requires recurring TM initiatives for resolution, additional analysis will be conducted. The analysis should result in recommendations to address the identified constraint and may include sector design adjustment, flow dispersion, or user operations adjustment. Should the local facility not be able to implement resolution recommendations due to external factors (i.e., lack of equipment, nonconcurrence from other facilities), the local facility will elevate the issue to the responsible Service Area office. “

I’d be willing to bet that a “pattern of alerts” is in the FAA’s data. I also bet the data shows that they haven’t taken any action. Especially when it comes to “user operations adjustment.”

In case it hasn’t dawned on you, the FAA has an incredibly hard time following its own rules. Even the good ones.

Don Brown
November 26, 2007

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