Thursday, January 10, 2008

Like Sands Through the Hourglass

The soap opera at the Federal Aviation Administration will not end.

From the Associated Press:

” WASHINGTON - Experienced air traffic controllers are retiring faster this year than the government projected and their union said Wednesday the remaining veterans can no longer safely handle peak volumes in Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Southern California.“

Again and again, NATCA raises the alarm and -- again and again -- the FAA says all is well.

” FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said fatal air accidents have declined to record low levels and said FAA measurements show reductions in serious errors.”

Who is Joe Public supposed to believe ? It’s hard to know. The psychology of it all is interesting. If asked, most people will tell you they don’t believe the government. But their actions say otherwise. As do their lack of actions. They continue to fly and they don’t call their Congressman.

Me ? I just try to tell the truth as I know it. The last time we were in this situation was in 1981 when PATCO went on strike. The situation is similar -- but it isn’t the same. The drain of experienced controllers was overnight. And the government went into crisis mode. They limited flights, they hired tons of people as fast as they could (expense be damned) and they brought in the military to help.

Today, the Bush Administration is in denial. Their projections have been wrong from the start -- more people have retired -- so they keep “re-baselining” their projections. The FAA revised them three times last year and they were wrong all three times. Another major difference is in the number of flights. In 1981, the FAA all but grounded General Aviation and capped the number of airline flights. Today, traffic is at record levels. And we can’t very well look to the military to help. We’re busy breaking that workforce too, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So what will happen ? It’s impossible to know. But I can tell you what happened last time. I was there. I lived it. And I remember that in 1987 I was really scared we were going to have “the big one.” Take a look at these figures.

Number of Near Mid Air Collisions (NMAC)

1984 -- 589
1985 --758
1986 -- 840
1987 -- 1,058
1988 -- 710
1989 -- 550
1990 -- 454
1991 -- 348
1992 -- 311
1993 -- 293

You might remember, four days ago, I was talking about how “chance favors the prepared mind.” The last time I needed those statistics (remember how old they are) I couldn’t find them in time to meet my deadline. I kept searching and when I found them, I left the file on my (virtual) desktop because I had a feeling they would come in handy one day soon. Like today.

Instead of preparing, I could have just left it up to chance. You’ll see those statistics again -- in tomorrow’s history lesson.

Right now, I’d like for you to notice the timeline. The strike was in 1981 and met with a huge effort by the government. Today’s retirement exodus started in 2006 and is being met with denial. The number of NMACs peaked in 1987 -- six years after the strike and the government’s best effort to mitigate it. That will give you an idea as to how important experience is in the controller workforce and how long it takes to get it.

Recognizing this will give you an idea as to just how insane the FAA’s current policy is. Instead of husbanding the experience they have left -- instead of encouraging controllers to stay -- they keep slicing away at the veins, bleeding the system faster. It’s obvious there is no incentive to stay (the controller retirement rate keeps exceeding the FAA’s projections) and the FAA keeps making a bad situation worse by refusing to negotiate a contract with the controllers.

As I’ve said before, today’s equivalent of the strike in 1981 -- mass retirements -- will happen in comparatively slow motion. It started over a year ago and will continue for at least a couple more. All things being equal (even though they aren’t), you can look forward to today’s crisis peaking around 2013. Or 2014. Or maybe 2015. That is a long time to gamble with your safety. You need to ask yourself, “Can you throw the dice for 6 years -- 1,058 times a year -- without the dice coming up snake eyes ?”

Don Brown
January 10, 2008

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