Friday, January 18, 2008

All’s Fair

There is a good story in today’s Los Angeles Times. It is well written. It presents an accurate picture overall and explains the issues. It quotes authoritative sources. I think it’s fair. And it’s wrong. Read it and come back for a discussion.

Air traffic controllers' labor tactics raise concern

Being fair isn’t the same thing as being right. Doing the best you can doesn’t equate to getting the job done. Ask any controller. While we’re here, I don’t want to be unfair to the writer of the article, Jennifer Oldham. She has done her job and -- as far as I can tell -- she has done it well. This isn’t about whether (or how) she has done her job anyway. It’s about being right.

For instance, take Jim Hall, the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mr. Hall. When he talks, I listen.

"I think that anyone that is in a safety position has a responsibility to not obviously use inflammatory language and maintain their comments on a factual basis," said Jim Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, who now runs a transportation consulting business.”

I understand the concept Mr. Hall is putting forth and -- to a very large degree -- I agree with him. That does not mean he is right. But as Mr. Hall suggests, let’s look at the facts.

This is from NATCA’s press release declaring a staffing “emergency.”


-        The number of fully certified and experienced controllers at Southern California TRACON (SCT), which handles all flights going in and out of the major airports in the entire region, has dropped 40 percent since 2004 and now stands at 159.

-        With staffing numbers at SCT well below that needed to provide adequate rest and recuperation time for controllers between shifts, almost 85 percent of them are now regularly working six-day weeks. In 2007, many controllers logged well over 40 days of overtime. The amount of overtime the FAA has paid controllers to cover for staffing shortages has risen from $261,000 in 2004 to $2.8 million in 2007. “

I am not aware of anyone who has challenged the “factual basis” of those statements. And if I know the folks at NATCA that put together those numbers (and I do), no one will be able to challenge them. In other words, I strongly believe they are indeed factual. If (as I believe) they are factual, you have to ask yourself two questions.

1) What should we do about it ?

2) What is being done about it ?

As everyone who reads this blog knows, I look to history in search of answers. What did the FAA do in 1981 when PATCO went on strike, creating an instant “controller shortage” ? They limited the number of airline flights and severely curtailed General Aviation flights. In addition, they asked the military to limit their flights where possible.

I ask you, has anything like that taken place or even been proposed ? I am not aware of anything -- except for one safety-obsessed, looney-tune with a blog.

”The time to impose slot limitations at all commercial airports has come. There are many reasons to do so but there is one that trumps all others - -Safety. The current shortage of experienced air traffic controllers does not allow us to ignore reality any longer. We must limit the number of aircraft that are clogging up the ATC system, waiting for a departure or landing slot. It is a luxury we can no longer safely afford.

Don Brown
January 14, 2008“

I consider that a prudent, measured response to the current controller shortage. I don’t consider it “inflammatory” but I assure you other people do. By the way, now would be a good time for you to apply some of my own medicine to me. Being “prudent” and “measured” doesn’t mean that I’m right.

Be honest now -- when you read the quoted blog post above, only four short days ago, did you get a sense of urgency ? Or should I have said something that might have been “inflammatory” to get your attention ? Something like, “I believe the FAA should implement slot controls on an emergency basis. Today. Right this second.” Would that have done a better job of getting your attention ?

Perhaps an aviation analogy would fit better in that most of my readers are pilots or controllers. How many times have you heard -- after the fact -- that the pilot should have declared an emergency ? “If only the pilot had declared an emergency we could have saved him” ? I have an excellent example that I will share with you in just a few short days. Until then, I leave you with this guidance from the controller’s “bible”.


c. If the words "Mayday" or "Pan-Pan" are not used and you are in doubt that a situation constitutes an emergency or potential emergency, handle it as though it were an emergency.

d. Because of the infinite variety of possible emergency situations, specific procedures cannot be prescribed. However, when you believe an emergency exists or is imminent, select and pursue a course of action which appears to be most appropriate under the circumstances and which most nearly conforms to the instructions in this manual.

You may not think NATCA is right but, for now, I suggest you think of them as the ”pilot in command” and act accordingly. Declaring an emergency after the accident won’t help. They’ve chosen (correctly I believe) to do it now. You can step up to help -- or not.

Don Brown
January 18, 2007

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