Friday, February 29, 2008

Just One of Those Things

I was on Wikipedia looking up a type aircraft I’d never heard of and stumbled across this:

”The aircraft did not take part in any true wars during its career with the Fleet Air Arm though it took part in many operations. In 1961, President Abdul Karim Kassem of Iraq threatened to annex the neighbouring oil-rich state of Kuwait. Kuwait appealed for external help. The United Kingdom dispatched a number of ships, including two fleet carriers to the region. Sea Vixens aboard the fleet carriers flew patrols in the region. Kassem's aggressive actions soon wilted in the face of such overwhelming naval might, thus averting a Gulf War over Kuwait.“

Don Brown
February 29, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- February 29

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Feb 29, 1972: Following a nationwide election, the National Association of Air Traffic Specialists (NAATS) received Department of Labor certification as the national exclusive representative for all Flight Service Station specialists, some 3,000 employees. On Jun 1, 1972, FAA and NAATS concluded an agencywide collective bargaining agreement, the first such contract between FAA and a national labor organization and the first in a series of FAA/NAATS contracts.“

In case you weren’t paying attention these last few years, NAATS was a union that represented the Flight Service Specialists. FSS was contracted out to Lockheed Martin after a study done by a group called Grant Thornton said that some of the work they did could be contracted out.

In addition, you may remember that the vast majority of NAATS members lost their ATC retirement benefits when they were contracted out. It’s a complicated story but this pretty well sums it up:

” Breen — who was 44 years old and had 15 years of federal service when her job was outsourced — was six years short of being eligible for an air traffic controller’s pension of about $35,000 a year. If she doesn’t find a federal job before she retires, the best she can hope for is $3,000 a year. “

Ms. Breen was the president of NAATS.

In case you’ve forgotten, there’s an air traffic controller shortage -- a shortage that was plain to see coming -- less than 3 years after these folks lost their jobs. To put the icing on this crummy cake -- according to the latest survey at AVweb, 91% of the respondents have a negative impression of FSS run by Lockheed. Everyone who reads them knows that AVweb’s survey aren’t scientific. Still, when 28% of the respondents agree with the statement -- “It was much better when the FAA ran it, but I can still use it.” -- you’ve got to wonder about that “business is better” philosophy.

Don Brown
February 29, 2008

Thursday, February 28, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- February 28

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Feb 28, 1995: At Denver International Airport’s opening day, air traffic controllers at the state-of-the-art facility cleared three aircraft to make the world’s first triple simultaneous landing. By this date, FAA had provided Airport Improvement Program grants totaling $267.6 million for the project, and had committed over $200 million more in Letters of Intent. In a February 1996 report on the airport’s first 11 months in operation, FAA stated that the facility had achieved a flight delay rate five times less than the airport it replaced, Stapleton International. (See May 17, 1988.) “

If you want to know how to reduce airline delays, this is how. Build more runways and put them far enough apart so that you can use them in bad weather. Wikipedia has excellent write-up about the current DIA airport and it’s predecessor -- Stapleton.

If you don’t have 52 square miles and $5 billion dollars (that’s 1995 dollars) laying around, you’ll need to consider slot restrictions instead.

Don Brown
February 28, 2008

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

English-Irish American

Check out this short news story (be sure to look at the pictures) from across the pond. You’ve got to love the English.

”One of the banners hanging down the side of the building read "NO THIRD RUNWAY".”

Think about that for a moment if you will. They don’t want a third runway at their busiest airport -- Heathrow. Atlanta has five parallel runways and I’m sure the sixth is on somebody’s drawing board, somewhere. Of course, the situation in the Northeast proves that we’re not that much different.

There’s another area where there are considerable differences though.

Air traffic controllers consider deal

I can’t speak with any authority on the situation -- I only know what I read about it when it shows up in my news selections. But here is my impression.

The Irish controllers perceived that they were being used and abused. The Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) has failed to hire enough air traffic controllers (like half the world’s ATC system providers, seemingly) and the controllers were paying the price for the IAA’s mistake. The controllers were being scheduled an excessive amount of overtime to make up for the shortfall. Once the controllers figured it out, they said "enough." And evidently, their laws allow them the right to say “No.”

Furthermore, the controllers said “fix it” or they would go on strike. Management wouldn’t agree and so it went to court. (What a novel idea.)

”The Labour Court has recommended that an interim overtime system should be put in place for air traffic controllers for the next 18 months until additional newly recruited staff become fully operational.

Under the proposals, air traffic controllers would receive an allowance of €4,000 a year for making themselves available to do overtime on a voluntary basis.

Labour Court chairman Kevin Duffy recommended that participating air traffic controllers should make themselves available to be called in on overtime on 12 days per year but that they would not actually be called into work more than eight times.

He also proposed that an overtime rate of double time should apply and that staff should be paid for a minimum of five hours at overtime rates if they were called in to work.“

I’m sure the Irish controllers will look over the deal for themselves but I look at it in comparison to the controller’s situation in America. American controllers can decline an offer of overtime but can’t refuse an order to work it. If they don’t like it, the only court they can appeal to is the court of public opinion.

The Irish Labour Court recommended an interim plan. The IAA gets 18 months to hire some controllers and they pay the price for their own mistakes -- 4,000 euros to get controllers to volunteer for overtime. And this is the part I really like -- available for overtime 12 times a year but not to actually work it but 8 times a year. For double time instead of time and one half like American controllers.

Let’s add all that up shall we ? The Irish get a bonus. The Americans get nothing. The Irish work no more that 8 shifts of overtime. The Americans work no more that 48-50-52 ? The Irish get double time. The Americans don’t.

But here’s the best part. The Irish controllers get a chance at a fair deal. And the Irish people get the situation resolved in a reasonable amount of time. The Americans ? They’ve got nothing.

With the proper checks and balances, the Irish appear to be on the road to resolving their problem. The Americans on the other hand, have been at odds for over 542 days (just for irony’s sake, that’s right at 18 months) with no end in sight. As a matter of fact, the only thing that is in sight for America is a train wreck -- or a plane wreck.

Don Brown
February 27, 2008

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Wake Up Call

I woke up this morning to the sound of thunder. It’s that time of year in Georgia. Warm, delicious days followed by thunderstorms proceeding the cold front that brings back the frost. Once we kick the temperature up a few more degrees we’ll be looking for tornados.

Anyway, I (of course) went to the computer to download the latest radar information. Only this time, I was using my wife’s laptop because mine is in the shop (just a broken hinge.) Because I didn’t have my usual preferences bookmarked, the web site brought up the “Base Reflectivity” radar data.

If you don’t know what “Base Reflectivity” is -- you’re the reason I’m writing this entry. Here is what a “Base Reflectivity” image looks like.

Here is what a “Composite Image” looks like.

The images were taken at the same time -- it’s the same storm front. Do you see how different they look ? That difference can get you killed.

If you fly or if you’re a controller, educate yourself about this system. It’s a great system but what you don’t know can hurt you. Go to the National Weather Service’s tutorial about weather radar. Go read one of my articles about NEXRAD. If you’re a controller you can read about your system on this blog. (Nobody says pilots can’t read it too.) If you own a NEXRAD device for your airplane, find out if it displays a composite or base reflectivity image.

As I’ve tried to point out in so many ways, all the technology in the world doesn’t do us any good if we don’t have people that understand it, interpret it and use it safely.

The facts are that we have the best weather radar data we’ve ever had in the National Airspace System. Yet we have more thunderstorm-related accidents than ever. Our technology isn’t saving us, it’s killing us. Until we learn to approach the human factors side of the system with the same zeal with which we pursue the technical side, don’t expect that to change.

Don Brown
February 26, 2008

Monday, February 25, 2008

Defining Emergency

Here’s a story that might make it into the mainstream Press.

Did FAA brush off 'mayday' call from doomed pilot?

First, let’s look at the facts as we know them. A pilot was having an emergency and his flight was being handled by a Flight Service Station. The FAA has an emergency radio frequency -- often referred to as Guard -- which is monitored by every FAA facility in the country and numerous other entities. This frequency is normally routed through a loudspeaker in the facility so that everyone can hear it. The simple idea is that, if you need help, all you have to do is call on this one frequency and somebody, somewhere, will hear you and provide assistance. Think of it as the 911 system for airplanes.

In this case, it appears a supervisor -- perhaps with good intentions -- turned down the volume on the Guard frequency loudspeaker to a point that controllers couldn’t hear it. I want to make this point clear. I understand the rationale it appears the supervisor was using. A blaring speaker isn’t conducive to the type of operation air traffic controllers run. Controllers can indeed become distracted. The supervisors actions were most likely rational. They were also wrong.

Let’s take a look at some of the rules for air traffic control. The quoted sections are from FAA Order 7110.65 -- also known as the controller’s bible.



a. Give first priority to separating aircraft and issuing safety alerts as required in this order. Good judgment shall be used in prioritizing all other provisions of this order based on the requirements of the situation at hand.
REFERENCE- FAAO JO 7110.65, Para 2-1-6, Safety Alert.

Because there are many variables involved, it is virtually impossible to develop a standard list of duty priorities that would apply uniformly to every conceivable situation. Each set of circumstances must be evaluated on its own merit, and when more than one action is required, controllers shall exercise their best judgment based on the facts and circumstances known to them. That action which is most critical from a safety standpoint is performed first.


There are two pertinent parts n that section. A controller’s first priority is to “separate aircraft and issue safety alerts” -- even if he’s working an emergency. Notice the phrase “good judgment.” You see it again in the “note” -- “best judgment.” It is vital that you understand this if you ever want to understand the responsibilities of air traffic controllers. Controllers may have to juggle more events than it is humanly possible to handle. They don’t get to quit. They are expected to use their “best judgment” and keep going no matter what.



Provide air traffic control service to aircraft on a "first come, first served" basis as circumstances permit, except the following:

a. An aircraft in distress has the right of way over all other air traffic

c. Provide maximum assistance to SAR aircraft performing a SAR mission.


An SAR aircraft is a “Search And Rescue” aircraft. In another version of this same story, on AVweb, you’ll see this.

”But FAA spokesman Ian Gregor told AVweb in an e-mail that by the time the controllers in Oakland had tuned in, the plane had already crashed and all they heard were transmissions from another pilot who saw the crash and was circling the wreck waiting for help to arrive. “

The aircraft “circling the wreck” is a SAR aircraft. There’s nothing special about it. It was probably just another pilot that happened to be flying in the area. Obviously he wouldn’t have the “rescue” portion of SAR but he was definitely involved in the “search.” It’s hard to render “maximum assistance” when you’re not listening to the conversation.

I could go on with this listing of the rules...



Monitor interphones and assigned radio frequencies continuously.


...but I don’t believe there is any need to belabor the point. From what I can gain out of the media reports, the supervisor failed to exercise the best judgment in this situation. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that there could have been another emergency while the frequency was turned down.

If relations between controllers and management were remotely tolerable, this incident would probably never have seen the light of day. In the controller’s eyes, this is a serious transgression. Controllers have to know who they can trust when the chips are down. You don’t get to make too many bad calls in a profession where “good judgment” is all important. The transgression would have been noted and brought to the attention of FAA management for them to handle.

Therein lies the point. Controllers don’t trust the FAA to “do the right thing” anymore. They’ve seen the trust they are supposed to have abused and violated too many times to recount. Relations aren’t normal between controllers and management. Relations are the worst that they have been since the PATCO strike in 1981 and possibly even worse than they were then. Controllers don’t trust FAA management, they don’t trust the Administrator, the Secretary of Transportation or the President.

That fact has an impact on everything. Including your safety.

Don Brown
February 25, 2008

Saturday, February 23, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- February 23

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Feb 23, 1956: The Civil Aeronautics Board, noting the increasing frequency of near-collisions in the air and wishing to gain more information about such incidents, adopted Special Civil Air Regulation No. SR- 416, which granted immunity from disciplinary proceedings to pilots reporting near misses. The identity of the pilot or other person making the report would be held in confidence by the Board. In cases where information about a violation of Civil Air Regulations was obtained by other means, however, the fact that the violation was voluntarily reported would not preclude enforcement, disciplinary, or remedial proceedings on the basis of such other information. In an attempt to gather information on near misses, some airlines had previously started their own anonymous reporting programs, but that effort had failed because pilots feared possible Federal disciplinary action. The CAB grant of immunity was intended to overcome this problem. (See Jul 10, 1959.) “

First, if you don’t know about NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System you need to familiarize yourself with it.

Second, if you haven’t read about the judge’s ruling in the ASAP program (a program similar to NASA’s ASRS) then you need to.

Don Brown
February 23, 2008

Friday, February 22, 2008


When I was in college, taking a business administration class, I distinctly remember the professor mentioning the “firefighting school of management.” Most of us have worked for an outfit that subscribed to that school of management thought. You know the ones, they go from putting out one fire to the next fire and never seem to have time to prevent the fires.

George W. Bush went to a different school than I did. He learned a different trick somewhere along the line. Instead of putting out fires he lights them. Here’s a thought for you to keep in mind as you read the article I’m about to mention and for others you might read in the future.

It’s really hard to get anything done -- and it’s very expensive -- when you’re busy fighting fires that somebody else set. That goes for government agencies as well as unions.

Go read “ Fighting Fire With the Wrong Sector?” by Stephen Barr of The Washington Post.

”The Government Accountability Office faulted outsourcing projects at the Forest Service in a report released yesterday, prompting renewed calls for more scrutiny of the Bush administration's effort to contract out federal jobs, a plan known as competitive sourcing. “

Don Brown
February 22, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- February 22

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Feb 22, 1974: At Baltimore-Washington International Airport, a former mental patient killed two persons and seriously wounded another in an attempt to hijack a DC-9 and crash it into the White House. The gunman committed suicide when wounded by a policeman.

I confess that I don’t remember this one. But after reading this article, I now know why.

”Feb 22, 1996: Confirming its intent to address staffing needs at key facilities, FAA announced that it planned to hire 100 more air traffic controllers during 1996, and that the Clinton Administration would
request funding for hundreds more during 1997 (see Sep 30, 1996). The agency pledged to give fair consideration to former strikers (see Aug 12, 1993). “

It’s usually forgotten now -- in the current crisis we face. Air traffic control has been chronically understaffed. For years and years. When I was working, we could get annual leave -- vacation time we had bid on a year in advance -- but you couldn’t get spot leave. Let’s say someone gave you a pair of tickets to the ball game a week from now. There wasn’t a chance to get off. If your sister was going to get married in three months -- there still wasn’t a chance of getting spot leave. It had been so long since the FAA had approved any spot leave, I literally forgot how to put in for it.

Instead, you had to swap days off with another controller, work credit hours or some other scheme to game the system. And trust me, we had some experts in gaming the system. What we didn’t have were enough controllers to assure you could lead some semblance of a normal life (even if your “weekend was Tuesday and Wednesday) by getting a day off to attend those moments that make a good life.

Don Brown
February 22, 2008

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Your Future Awaits

America might want to pay attention. This is what your future could look like.

”A Senate estimates committee today heard details of air traffic control towers left understaffed and at times unstaffed because of sickness and a lack of controllers.”

No, this isn’t one of my history lessons. This is happening right now -- today -- in Australia.

SEVERE shortages of air traffic controllers are causing major headaches for Airservices Australia.

This will be the next step.

Air traffic controllers to stage 24-hour strikes

“Around 60,000 passengers are set  to be affected next week by the cancellation of flights in and out of the State's main airports due to a 24-hour strike announced this morning by air traffic controllers.”

Again, this isn’t some history lesson. This is happening right now -- in Ireland. If things get this bad in the U.S. it won’t be 60,000 passengers -- it will be 600,000+. If memory serves me correctly, in the U.S., we have well over a million passengers a day that fly -- and close to 2 million per day on the major holidays.

As I tried to make clear just a few days ago, the FAA is bleeding controllers faster than the infusion of trainees can be trained. If the President, Congress, somebody doesn’t do something to stop the bleeding -- and do it fast -- the best thing that will happen will be closing a few air traffic control Towers. You don’t want to think about the worst thing that can happen.

Don Brown
February 20, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- February 20

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Feb 20, 1956: CAA and the Air Force announced a joint study under Air Navigation Development Board auspices to evaluate the use of Air Defense Command (ADC) radar for civil air traffic control purposes. The evaluation included use of a microwave link to remote radar information between an ADC installation at Rockville, Ind., and the CAA ARTCC at Indianapolis, a distance of some 50 miles. This was the first use of a microwave link to transfer radar information between distant points for air traffic control. (See Nov 16, 1956.) “

I don’t know what I can say about all this. Most people couldn’t understand how I could work the airspace near Charlotte, NC -- from Atlanta, GA -- in 1986, much less in 1956. The FAA is full of technical wizards. I talked to a few on a regular basis back when I was a safety rep. They always made me feel dumb. They were always helpful and kind but if they ever got into technical details they would quickly leave me behind. It’s a good thing they were on our side.

Don Brown
February 20, 2008

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Communicating for Safety ‘08

Just in case you forgot, the yearly Communicating for Safety conference is rapidly approaching. I’ll be there. I hope you will be too.

Communicating For Safety
Chicago, Illinois
March 31 - April 2, 2008
Crowne Plaza Chicago - O'Hare

Here is the complete schedule and below is one segment:

Industry Leaders Panel
Congestion – Solving Gridlock Today

Pat Forrey – President, NATCA
Capt. John Prater – President, ALPA
Robert A. Sturgell – Acting FAA Administrator**
James C. May – President & CEO, ATA
Edward Bolen – President & CEO, NBAA
Phil Boyer – President, AOPA

That panel alone will be worth every penny. I hope to see you there.

Don Brown
February 19, 2008

Gray Eagles

There really isn’t anything I need to say. Click on the link and watch the video. Oh yeah, and grab a tissue.

Gray Eagles Foundation

Don Brown
February 19, 2008

Monday, February 18, 2008

Thinking and TV

Question: Can you think while watching TV ? Ever since I read Al Gore’s book, An Inconvenient Truth -- including the part on the mental processes while watching TV -- I’ve begun to wonder.

The TV stays on a lot at my house. I won’t make any comment about it. I’ll just state the fact. In that it’s on so much, various and assorted things wind up on the TV that I don’t necessarily watch. Like Lou Dobbs. Now, I’m not really watching mind you -- I’m actually helping prepare dinner -- but it appears Mr. Dobbs is upset about various and assorted things. Recalled beef, unsafe toys and incompetent Federal managers. Yet, two minutes before, he -- like the national news I’d watched just minutes before -- got into the Hillary/Obama war of words.

I’ve watched Mr. Dobbs before. He’s a reasonably intelligent man -- whether you agree with him or not. But, like I said, it makes me wonder. Why didn’t Mr. Dobbs take the five minutes spent on the Hillary/Obama war of words, which is -- let’s face it -- fluff, and instead examine Ms. Clinton’s record on beef inspection ? Or Mr. Obama’s stance on consumer safety ? Or Mr. McCain’s record on government oversight ?

This isn’t really hard to figure out is it ? I use my “FAA History Lessons” as a mechanism to spur my thoughts about current policy for the FAA. Wouldn’t you think somebody in the media would use current events to explore the views of Presidential candidates by looking at their history ? Let’s “stick with what we know” -- aviation.

Do you know what the policies of any of the Presidential candidates are concerning aviation ? Or transportation in general ? I’ve looked for position papers. There might be some out there but I haven’t found any. If you stick a microphone in a candidate’s face and ask, they will just hem-and-haw around the issue. But they all have a record. What is their record on aviation issues ? Do you know ?

Safe food, safe toys, government oversight, safe transportation --these are things that matter. And they are things that Presidents have influence over. Why doesn’t the news media cover these things ? Could it be because of a failed public policy in the use of the public airwaves ? Not airways but airwaves -- radio and TV broadcast frequencies. The President has influence over that too.

The President appoints the commissioners of the FCC. He appoints Federal judges that rule on controversial cases. The President even nominates the Administrator of the FAA. The Senate gets to approve. Or not. Senators have records. And three of them are running for President.

Back over to you Lou.

Don Brown
February 18, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- February 18

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Feb 18, 1970: FAA's first IBM 9020 computer and its associated software program became operational at the Los Angeles ARTCC (see Jun 30, 1967). The new computer system was at the heart of the new semiautomated airway air traffic control system--NAS En Route Stage A. This equipment reduced controller workload by automatically handling incoming flight information messages, performing necessary calculations, and distributing flight data strips, as needed, to controller positions. The agency planned to install similar equipment at all of the centers, and with the new automated nationwide system each center would have the capability to collect and distribute information about each aircraft's course and altitude to all the sector controllers along its flight path. The new computers also had the ability to record and distribute any changes registered in aircraft flight plans en route. (See Dec 30, 1968, and Feb 13, 1973.) “

This piece of history should sound familiar to you. It was just last week (Feb 13) that I touched on it. This system is the heart and soul of the air traffic control system. It’s the brains -- the guts -- the big enchilada. Pay attention to the date -- 1970 -- 38 years ago.

If the FAA were a business office, without this system you’d be back to typewriters and carbon paper. Secretaries would still be writing memos in shorthand and then typing them out. The boss wouldn’t know how to type.

At the time, this was the most complex computer program out there (at least the ones we know about.) The FAA tried to modernize it once before under a program called the Advanced Automation System. It was a failure of monumental proportions. The gist of it is that controllers still -- 38 years later -- operate with the core of this program on a daily basis: Flight Data Processing. It’s buried under layers of new computers, monitors and updated software languages but the core program is still there.

The current effort to rewrite the program is called ERAM -- En Route Automation Modernization. If you don’t have time to keep up will all the going-ons in the FAA but you would still like to get a feel for how things are going -- this is the program to watch. And this is the first thing to watch for.

ERAM Delivery

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is on budget and ahead of schedule with a system that will increase capacity by enabling air traffic controllers to track more aircraft at high altitudes. Lockheed Martin, contractor for the En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) equipment, delivered the system to the FAA six months ahead of schedule – meeting a major milestone in the FAA’s Flight Plan. “

After 38 years, a 2.5 billion dollar fiasco called AAS that was supposed to do the same thing and a dozen different facelifts -- ERAM is “on time.”

For a slightly different version of the truth, take a look at this from the Air Line Pilot’s Association -- better known as (ALPA)

”ERAM involves huge risks because of its size and complexity. The FAA has spent more than $930 million on ERAM so far; the total tab could push $2 billion. One reason is that ERAM must be completed, tested, and deployed by 2010-the year when the vendor who supports the current ARTCC system will cease to do so. Delaying ERAM deployment could be very costly.

Despite the high cost of ERAM, the initial system will add no new capabilities to enroute ATC. Enhancements such as automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), which involves aircraft automatically transmitting GPS position to ATC and other aircraft, and controller-pilot datalink communications (CPDLC), will not be added until the first ERAM upgrade-now scheduled for 2012. “

(Emphasis added)

Don Brown
February 18, 2008

Sunday, February 17, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- February 17

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Feb 17, 1974: A soldier flew a stolen Army helicopter to the White House, where guards open fire with shotguns. Wounded in the legs, the soldier landed on the lawn and was taken into custody. “

You never know what you’ll find in the FAA’s history. Always keep in mind that there are a variety of subjects in it I don't normally post here. And now, for something more in keeping with my usual fare...

”Feb 17, 1994: FAA announced that it was implementating civil use of the Initial Operational Capability (IOC) of the Global Positioning System (GPS). IOC signified that the system’s 24 satellites were operating in their assigned orbit and providing signals. FAA also stated that it had granted approval for certification of two types of GPS signal receivers. (See Dec 17, 1993, and Jun 2, 1994.) “

Don Brown
February 17, 2008

Saturday, February 16, 2008

If I Can Do the Math...

Once again, Business Week has an article about the controller shortage. There is nothing quite like money to get everyone’s attention. I never thought that money did much for dead people. That makes safety more important in my book but alas, it is money that gets the attention of the living.

Anyway, I was struck by some of the numbers in the article used by NATCA and the FAA to convince the American Public as to which one is telling the truth.

The FAA tells Business Week that “More than 90 candidates were interviewed last month...“ Okay. “Candidates” and “interviewed” doesn’t equate to controllers but the number was only for one “regional office” and I assume there are several.

“But the union says more than six veteran controllers per day retired between Oct. 1 and Jan. 5,...“ I assume the number NATCA used is correct but I also assume those dates were particularly bad for the FAA. However, I’ve seen the calculations made from last year and I know that this year is expected to be worse. Let’s run some numbers.

“Six controllers per day” times “last month” is 6 times 30. That equals 180 real-life controllers retiring while the FAA was interviewing “90 candidates.” Okay, the interviewing was for just one region. Maybe we need to look at the whole quote in context.

”More than 90 candidates were interviewed last month at the new processing center at the FAA's regional office in New York. The first hires to participate in the process received job offers within two weeks and will start at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City this month. Other centers will be established this spring in the busy hubs of Atlanta, Chicago and elsewhere, according to the agency.”

“Other centers will be established this spring...” That is just a little vague isn’t it ?

”The FAA plans to hire more than 1,800 new controllers this year... “

That is more precise but it is also misleading. It’s a nice number but they aren’t hiring controllers. They’re hiring “candidates”, wannabe controllers, trainees. And just as sure as God made little green apples a significant portion of them will not make it through training to become controllers.

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, controllers are retiring. Let’s say we’re only losing five a day instead of the six per day NATCA says. 5 x 365 = 1,825 per year.

Do you see the problem ? At five per day the FAA is losing controllers faster than they are hiring trainees. If you start adding in the truth while you’re playing with the numbers the picture just gets bleaker. Historically, the wash out rate for trainees is around 50 percent. The FAA would need to hire 3,600 trainees to replace 1,800 controllers -- starting at least two years ago. Either that or the FAA has to stop the bleeding and get retirements down below 3 a day -- starting at least two years ago. They didn’t.

From an older article in Government Executive:

Veteran controllers have been retiring at a rate of more than three per day since the start of the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 2006, NATCA reported. “

Training a controller takes time. You can train somebody to be a controller in two years but it’s a bad idea. I know, I did it in two years and two days. Nothing replaces experience. You can cram the training into two years instead of four (or five) but you can’t cram the experience in too.

Now, if I can do the math so can the FAA. They can’t be that stupid. I’ve said that before. I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve said it. As I showed you yesterday, there is a worldwide shortage of controllers. Even if the Bush Administration were to contract out the ATC portion of the FAA, where would the contractors get the controllers ?

Are you getting the Flick yet ? Once again, it is NATCA that is telling you the truth. The best way to mitigate this crisis is to negotiate a good and fair contract with the controllers and stop the bleeding of experienced controllers. The price the American Public will have to pay -- sooner or later -- goes up every, single day. And if you think I’m talking about just money you still don’t have the Flick.

Don Brown
February 16, 2008

Friday, February 15, 2008

A World Apart

Let’s see now...where were we ? Oh yes. At the beginning of this month I told you about the shortage of air traffic controllers in Australia leading to the occasional closing of airspace. This week it’s the same story on the other side of the planet -- Ireland.

”Last Saturday a dozen flights were cancelled at Shannon Airport after the controllers refused to work overtime. There was also disruption at Shannon earlier last Wednesday night and last month 32 flights at Dublin airport were also grounded by the dispute.“

I’m intrigued by the (seemingly) worldwide shortage of controllers (why and why now ?) and I’m fascinated by the responses in each country. Australia just closes up shop, announces the airspace is uncontrolled and says “y'all be careful.” The Irish “close the airport.“ Of course, that is just what I’m learning from the Press and we all know how the Press can get an aviation story wrong.

What seems to be clear in this story, though, is that the Irish controllers can refuse to work overtime. American controllers can say they don’t want to work overtime but they can’t refuse it. Trust me on this one. There’s a story going around amongst controllers that an ARTCC controller worked 16 hours the other day (actually night) when the midnight shift didn’t show up and management couldn’t find a replacement. If true (and every indication so far leads me to believe it is true) it would be a violation of the FAA’s own policies. Controllers are limited to 10 hour days for safety reasons (i.e. fatigue.) If American controllers could actually refuse overtime we would be shutting our airports down too.

As I hope I’ve made clear numerous times, American Federal employees might be allowed a union but they have very little power. I know that many people don’t believe this -- the right wing of the Republican party has had a very successful propaganda campaign in place for years to convince people otherwise. Regardless of the propaganda, I think incidents like this make the truth clear. If American controllers could refuse overtime as a labor tactic they would. But they don’t have the right to refuse overtime so the point is moot.

If you take that fact to the theoretical realm it starts to get uncomfortable. It is a bedrock belief in unions that an individual has the right to refuse work. That doesn’t mean a right to refuse work without consequences -- it just means it is a right. Think “unalienable Right” -- like Liberty. Without the Right to refuse work you are nothing but a slave.

What is fair -- what is Just -- then becomes a matter of consequences. If the consequence of refusing work is to lose your Life, then you are still a slave. If the consequence of refusing work is to lose your Liberty, you are still enslaved. Do you remember the images of the PATCO controllers in chains after refusing to work ?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

We talk much of Freedom in the United States. Perhaps we should do a little more thinking and a little less talking.

When the Republican right wing loses this argument on its merits they proceed to play the fear card. They would have you believe that America would fall into utter chaos. Our standing in the world would be threatened. If unions were given any power it would threaten America’s standard of living.

I’ve referred you to the Human Development Index before and it’s worth taking another look. Australia (#3) and Ireland (#5) are both rated above the United States (#12.) Furthermore, if you’ll take the time to look, the U.S. has a down arrow next to its listing. Do you think Ireland’s standing in the world is threatened because their air traffic controllers can refuse to work overtime ?

Unions don’t threaten America, freedom or our economy. Excessive power in the hands of any one organization does threaten us -- and anybody else. That organization could be a union organization. Or it can be a business organization. Or a political party. Or a government. The phrase “checks and balances” comes to mind.

Keeping organizations in check so as to provide a balance of power is a constant, never-ending battle. You’ve got to ask yourself a question or two. Who has too much power right now -- at this moment in time ? How can you tell ? The same way you can always tell.


Don Brown
February 15, 2008

Second Cup

Don’t you just hate it when the coffee maker isn’t lined up just right and overflows all over the kitchen counter ? I know I do.

In the mean time, go read this outstanding editorial from Robert Reich in The New York Times. Mr. Reich’s blog is on my list (look left -- hey, that’s funny even if no pun was intended) for a reason.

Talk to you later.

Don Brown
February 15, 2008

Thursday, February 14, 2008

DARPA Looks at ATC

DARPA -- the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is looking at the application of artificial intelligence in Air Traffic Control (ATC.) Yes, it’s that DARPA. The one that invented the internet.

Several thoughts come to mind -- Al Gore and the internet, FAA management and artificial intelligence, Pie in the Sky -- but I think I’ll let them all pass. And no, you aren’t the first one to think of SkyNet from The Terminator either. Check out the comment section of the article linked above.

Moving on to more important matters, it seems as if channel 9 on United Airline’s airplanes has become a bargaining tool. For those that don’t know, channel 9 on United Airline’s flights allows the passengers to listen to the pilot and air traffic control communications.

Several thoughts about this interesting article also come to mind. Thoughts like, nobody bothered to ask the controllers what they think about their transmissions being broadcast to the passengers.

I probably had a unique take on this quote from the article.

” Many travelers says they find the rapid-fire communications and sometimes lighthearted banter with controllers far more entertaining than the normal fare of second-run movies and music collections offered on in-flight entertainment systems.”

I’m curious -- how much do you think United Airlines pays for those “second-run movies and music collections “ they play on the other channels ? Just sayin’. The FAA says it can’t afford a contract. I’m just thinking about outside sources of revenue.

There’s a flip side to that coin too.

“And some nervous fliers say they find it soothing to hear their captain's confident voice.“

I bet controllers could put some things on the air that wouldn’t make the passengers less nervous. Again, I’m just sayin’. Just making conversation.

The American Public has a well-developed sense of fair play. Marion Blakey and the Bush Administration liked to use the word “fair” a lot while their actions were anything but. They would cry poverty while squandering the taxpayer’s money on various and assorted questionable tax breaks and wars.

Controllers can think outside the box too. They can also play dirty. It doesn’t take artificial intelligence to figure out that their ability to have an impact on the National Airspace System is immense. The fact that they have chosen to “color within the lines” so far speaks to their sense of fairness and their professionalism. It would be a mistake to think that their sense of fair play and patience is limitless.

If I was a deep thinker, this is what I would think. For controllers, seeking redress from the Bush Administration is hopeless. Controllers could fight and win -- but they can’t win without a fight. The Congress is currently controlled by the Democrats but -- so far -- they have failed to act to alleviate the controller’s concerns.

It looks as if the next President will be a Democrat. There wouldn’t be much benefit in antagonizing a brand new President (think Reagan) -- especially one that might help your cause -- so if you wanted to make a statement, now would be the time. What kind of statement ? One like this:

As far as opportunities, they are virtually limitless. Or as Maverick from Top Gun said; it’s a target-rich environment. And that isn’t the half of it. With civil aviation accounting for 9 percent of the U.S. GDP, the opportunities for economic mischief aren’t limited to a tea party in Boston Harbor. Everybody and everything flies. Republicans fly to Minnesota, Democrats fly to Denver, golfers fly to Augusta, GA and the whole world (believe it or not) flies into Oshkosh, WI. Just ask the EAA.

It’s a good thing I’m not a deep thinker. Otherwise I might think myself into a world of trouble. I think everybody ought to do their job and spend their time thinking about how to do it better. For controllers, that would mean safer, more orderly and more expeditiously.

Artificial Intelligence ? Bah ! Humbug ! Somebody needs to concentrate on showing some plain-old human intelligence before this situation blows up in our faces.

Don Brown
February 14, 2008

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- February 13

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Feb 13, 1990: The Direct User Access Terminal Service (DUATS) began operating, allowing private pilots to receive weather briefings and file flight plans from home computers. An FAA contractor provided the service free to civilian pilots and students. DUATS took over most of the functions of the Interim Voice Response System (IVRS), which FAA discontinued on Sep 30, 1990. (See Mar 14, 1984.) “

I find it interesting how events seem to group themselves into categories on certain dates. There hasn’t been much to choose from in the last few days of the FAA’s history -- at least as far as ATC goes -- but suddenly, there are several technical projects listed. Direct User Access Terminal Service is probably one of the more successful projects the FAA has ever funded. At least from a pilot’s perspective.

From a controller’s perspective, this was probably the best program ever.

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Feb 13, 1973: Ceremonies at the Memphis Air Traffic Control Center celebrated the center’s switch over to computer processing of flight-plan data, completing Phase One of the NAS En Route Stage A, FAA's decade-long program to automate and computerize the nation's en route air traffic control system (see Sep 26, 1964). With the new computer installation at Memphis, all twenty ARTCCs in the contiguous 48 states gained an automatic capability to collect and distribute information about each aircraft's course and altitude to all the sector controllers along its flight path. Pilots still had to file flight plans at flight service stations and military operations offices, but now computers would handle the centers' "bookkeeping functions" of assigning and printing out controller flight strips. The new computers also had the ability to record and distribute any changes registered in aircraft flight plans en route. The system eventually tied in with the Automated Radar Terminal System (ARTS III) units then being installed at major airports (see Oct 4, 1971 and Feb 15, 1973). Phase Two of the en route automation program was still under way; it would provide controllers at the twenty centers with new radar displays that would show such vital flight information as altitude and speed directly on the screen. (See Feb 18, 1970 and Jun 14, 1973.) “

Prior to Flight Data Processing (FDP), controllers had to manually prepare and calculate the times on Flight Progress Strips. In other words, they had to hand-write a strip for each sector, calculate the time between each fix/navigation aid (which varied according to the speed of each flight) and then “run” the strips to the appropriate sector.

And for you young guys, the calculations were done on a “whiz wheel” -- better known as an E6B.

No one misses the laborious processes computers have taken over for humans. What we do miss is the in-depth knowledge of the system that these processes gave the operators. For another look at the same phenomenon, albeit from a different angle, take a look at this fine piece at the blog JetWhine.

Don Brown
February 13, 2008

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Late Again

You will probably see several different versions of this entry on the internet. It’s just too good (and too easy) to pass up.

The FAA -- in all it’s misguided glory -- has pulled another harebrained idea out of it’s magical-thinking hat. They’ve gone and purchased a bunch of 50-inch plasma TV monitors to pipe their propaganda straight into the air traffic control facilities around the country. They thought it was such a good idea that they even gave it some splashy coverage on their web site. I’d point you to the web site but after a couple of minutes worth of searching, I can’t find it. Typical FAA. I guess the url on the poster is for their intranet. That would be the intranet most controllers don’t visit. Here, see for yourself.

I don’t know how that poster will hit non-controllers but trust me when I tell you, the controllers took one look at it and started mocking it as only controllers can. Look, nobody is saying controllers are easy people to manage. I suspect we’re like any other group of bright people that possess a valuable and exceedingly rare skill. We’re different. And we can be difficult. You would think that would make the FAA very careful about how they communicate with controllers.

But no, the FAA continues to add insult to injury. The FAA tells controllers that it can’t afford a decent contract, freezes their pay, cuts the pay of trainees and then they spare no expense to buy a store-full of plasmas for propaganda purposes. I won’t venture a guess as to how much money that cost the taxpayers. It was probably over budget but I know it was 24 years behind schedule.

Don Brown
February 12, 2008

P.S. I finally found the web site. Thank goodness the “I love dealing with drug smugglers” banner across the top is no longer displayed. Would I kid you ?

FAA History Lesson -- February 12

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Feb 12, 1987: FAA initiated Phase 1 of the Expanded East Coast Plan (EECP) to help increase the capacity of the National Airspace System (see Aug 21, 1986). The plan had been originally intended to relieve traffic congestion in the New York and Washington, D.C., areas through the more effective use of airspace, but was expanded to cover the airspace from Maine to Florida and west to Chicago. The EECP: created new departure and arrival routes; established separate paths and altitudes for jets and slower propeller aircraft; set up new city-pair routes; and used new traffic management techniques to increase airport departure flows and reduce holding procedures. The agency initiated Phase II of plan on Nov 19. That phase involved a realignment of the northwest departure quadrant from the New York Metropolitan area. The agency also increased the number of westbound high-altitude, routes from one to four to expedite traffic flows to Chicago, Detroit, and the west coast. The final phase of the EECP, implemented on Mar 10, 1988, was designed to improve traffic flow from the New York area to the northeast, and involved changes affecting the airspace in New England, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. (See Aug 25, 1988.) “

If this sounds like more of the same thing that is happening’re starting to catch on.

Don Brown
February 12, 2008

Sunday, February 10, 2008

NextGen News

I hope you’ve been keeping up with the news without me. I’m somewhat surprised by how much air traffic control is making the news at the moment. I assumed things would slow down for the late winter/early spring. That was always the slow time of the year for us at Atlanta Center (slow being a relative term.)

I stumbled across the President’s weekly radio address today. The FAA even made it into that forum. Bobby Sturgell, President Bush’s nominee for FAA Administrator, isn’t the only person he can’t get confirmed by the Senate. I read it on Fox News. I never go to the Fox News web site and can’t say why I did this time. It was interesting though. Across the top is a banner advertisement for Levitra. (think Bob Dole and ED.) The next thing to catch your eye is a picture of Hillary Clinton with the caption “House Divided.” When you get to the bottom of the article you’re invited to sign up for a series of email newsletters. One is from Newt Gingrich and one is from Ann Coulter. I had never thought about it before but they would make a lovely couple wouldn’t they ?

The news item that really caught my eye this weekend concerned “NextGen”, the FAA’s (I don’t know what you would call it) idea (?) for the future of National Airspace System (NAS.) I first saw it in Forbes and then it made it to CNN Money.

” The Federal Aviation Administration in August awarded ITT Corp. (NYSE:ITT) a contract worth up to $1.8 billion to build the first portion of the system, dubbed NextGen, that will take nearly 20 years to complete. The agency has said that the new system will help improve operations and limit delays, and is expected to cost between $15 billion and $22 billion.

But an independent industry analysis completed last year forecast that NextGen's software development alone could cost more than $50 billion, Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III said Thursday during a House hearing on the FAA's proposed budget for 2009.”

The figures I’ve heard previously for NextGen have been all over the place. I’ve heard $20 billion and I’ve heard $40 billion. But $50 billion for “software development alone” ?

The problem is that no one really knows what NextGen is. And that includes the FAA. It is ill defined as to what it is, much less what it will do for the NAS. If you’ll read the press reports closely you’ll realize that the Press is pretty clueless about it. They’ll mention GPS and/or RNAV like it is actually something new. When in fact, they’ve been around for decades. NextGen reminds me of another FAA program -- Free Flight. Anybody in aviation knows what I’m talking about. The FAA pushed Free Flight just like they are pushing NextGen. Where is it ?

I hate to quote myself but it saves time.

” The concept of “Free Flight” is the folly of the uninformed. I don’t know of a single controller that believes it will work.”

It’s getting harder and harder to find web pages on the FAA’s idea of Free Flight. (The program office used to have their own page.) That’s the thing about ill-defined programs -- they can take on a life of their own. Ask five people what Free Flight is and you’ll get five different answers. NextGen incorporates a lot of the ideas that were supposed to become a reality in Free Flight. The Next Great Idea will incorporate ideas from NextGen that somehow didn’t become reality.

To wrap this up, NextGen is the FAA’s version of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) -- better known as Star Wars. It’s an irresistible idea and $50 billion dollars is just the start. You might want to ask yourself the same question about SDI. Where is it ?

Don Brown
February 10, 2008

Friday, February 08, 2008

Is Bush Clinton ?

I can’t help but wonder -- will “W” be the “Klinton” for Democrats ? You know what I’m talking about. The rabid, seemingly irrational, hatred that Bill Clinton inspires in some Republicans. Is George W. Bush destined to be the same for some Democrats ? Can he really be as bad as he seems ?

If you read Dan Froomkin’s latest blog about “W”, the answer is, yes, he really is that bad. (The article may be behind the firewall but it’s worthy reading. )

Bush Thumbs Nose at Congress

”The overall message to Congress was clear: I'm not bound by your laws.

The three other sections Bush reserved the right to ignore are also significant. One mandates the establishment of a commission to investigate waste and fraud in military contracts; another strengthens protections for whistle-blowers working for federal contractors; a third requires the president to explain in writing each time an intelligence agency refuses to respond to a document request from the House and Senate armed services committees.

But it's Bush's cavalier dismissal of the ban on funding for permanent military bases that really speaks volumes -- not just about his view of the role of the legislative branch, but also about his intentions for Iraq.”

The story focuses on President Bush’s liberal use of “signing statements.” Instead of vetoing a Bill, he signs it with the caveat that he will ignore certain provisions. It’s like having your cake and eating it too. Or having it both ways. Or being above the law.

My reading of Mr. Froomkin’s blog is probably not helped by the fact that I’m reading Thomas Oliphant’s book about the Bush Administration -- Utter Incompetents.

Having worked during both Administrations -- Clinton and Bush -- I have to go with what I know. Things were never “good” with the FAA during my career. I started right after the PATCO strike in 1981. We had another union up and running before Reagan left office. That was not easy nor was it fun -- starting a union during the Reagan Administration. It didn’t get any better during the first Bush’s Administration. It didn’t get any didn’t get any worse. And then Clinton came in and things did get better. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea -- there were no “good old days” during my 25 year career at the FAA. But under Clinton, controllers received some long-overdue raises and they felt like they had a voice in how things were run. We even managed to make some needed upgrades to our equipment. FAA management remained a constant source of incompetence throughout, though.

All that went away under the second President Bush (well, except the FAA management incompetence.) It took him a little while to get it done but once President Bush started, he made up for lost time with a vengeance. I’ve often wondered if the events of 9/11 threw off his timetable. In the Bush Administration -- where it’s all politics, all the time -- it would have been politically imprudent to take on one of the groups that earned so much positive recognition on that dark day -- air traffic controllers. But America has a short attention span.

Marion Blakey brought in her hired gun -- Joe Miniace -- and the rest is what is on this blog almost everyday. By the way, Miniace is one of those names that you want to put away in a safe place so you can remember it. When the history of the FAA for this period of time is written, you’ll need know who he was.

Now we have controllers retiring in droves and trainees actually quitting (as opposed to flunking out.) That is something else you’ll want to make a note of and save. I was listening to Bobby Sturgell’s confirmation hearing yesterday and heard that the FAA Academy was passing 95% of the trainees. When I went through the Academy in 1981, 65% of the class flunked out. That knowledge ought to curl your hair. Not to mention the implications when you think about how the FAA is counting trainees as controllers to convince you that the facilities are “adequately staffed.”

Will “W” become the Democrat’s “Klinton” ? I think so. The only differences will be who made how much money and the body count.

Don Brown
February 8, 2008

Thursday, February 07, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- February 7

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Feb 7, 1991: FAA announced a Runway Incursion Plan to cut incursions through actions that included tests of advances in runway marking, lighting, and signs at four airports: Boston, Seattle-Tacoma, Pittsburgh, and the new Denver airport under construction (see Jan 15, 1989). On Feb 15, the agency also amended its ATC Handbook to prohibit controllers from authorizing aircraft to hold at a taxiway/runway intersection at night or when the intersection was not visible from the tower. The change was among several that FAA had been considering as the result of a ground procedures review, begun in early 1990, that also resulted in the Runway Incursion Plan. (See Feb 1, 1991.) “

Whenever you see an entry like this -- if you know where to look -- you can usually find an accident like this:

NTSB Identification: DCA91MA010A


And in case you’ve already forgotten, it was only six days earlier when a controller authorized an ”aircraft to hold at a taxiway/runway intersection at night.” Controllers haven’t forgotten. One of our fellow controllers was on board the SkyWest that was crushed when the USAir 737 landed on top of it.

Don Brown
February 7, 2008

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Do You Believe Now ?

The union-loving, liberal-biased bastion of propaganda know as The Wall Street Journal has weighed in on the air traffic controller shortage. Check it out.

At Airports, Fewer Eyes on the Skies

Actually, the news department at The Wall Street Journal enjoys a solid reputation. The editorial board is another matter. It will be interesting to see how the Wall Street crowd reacts to the story.

The FAA, on the other hand, is still pleading ignorance.

”The FAA says that despite the reduction in air-traffic controllers, air travel has never been safer. "There is nothing that we're seeing at this point in time that gives us any concern," Mr. Krakowski said.“

I don’t guess Mr. Krakowski has been to the NTSB’s web site to view these two animations.

(scroll over the blank frames with the NTSB logo and the video controls will appear)

Don Brown
February 6, 2008

ATC On Sale

This story (below) probably won’t make it into the major media outlets. In that it’s Super Tuesday, it probably won’t even be mentioned by too many smaller outlets. That’s a shame. It could provide a good lesson.

First, read this glowing press release.

Oct. 12, 2007

”Of the 15 students to graduate from the air traffic control program, 14 students have been hired by the FAA and one student has been hired by a federal contract tower operator. The graduation marks the first time in history that the FAA has hired graduates from a trade school. Additionally, it’s the first time a trade school or college has not had to go through the FAA academy in Oklahoma City before being assigned to a facility.”

”Silver State Helicopters opened their first air traffic control training location in 2006 in New Braunfels, Tex. in response to the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) announcement to hire 12,500 controllers over a 10-year period. The plan was developed to cover the projected loss of 11,000 controllers and will replace expected retirees between 2007 and 2014.“

Next, you get to read reality.

Silver State shuts down

”“(Sliver State has) suspended operations. We know nothing about what their long-range plans are,” Morrison said. “We are going to enter into some contract labor agreements so we can continue to provide air traffic control at the tower.”

The Silver State board’s decision to cease operations at its helicopter training and air traffic control school almost certainly spells the end for the estimated 30 local employees, some of whom relocated to New Braunfels from Las Vegas. “

Just to save you a trip to Google Maps, New Braunfels is about 30 miles northeast of San Antonio, TX.

I hope the FAA Administrator wasn’t leaning too heavily on The Silver State Air Traffic Control Academy “to put the right number of controllers in the right place at the right time.”

Don Brown
February 5, 2008

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

It’s Worse Than I Thought

Today’s story comes from The Congressional Quarterly via Airport Business. Having written a few articles, I realize the problems with space constraints and dealing with complex issues but still...

If this is the information Congress is depending upon to make decisions, we’re in worse shape than I thought.

”So many thousands of planes are in the air today that they are seriously taxing an air traffic system that hasn't been fundamentally modernized since the 1960s.

The prospect of an aviation network riddled with delays, cancellations and choke points is prompting regulators for the first time to limit flights to and from the busiest airports. “

Excuse me ? I could let the first statement go. A lot of things haven’t changed since the 1960s (although more has changed than not) but the second statement is just plain wrong. And anybody who reads this blog knows it. The FAA has been limiting flights to the busiest airports for almost 40 years.

”Much of the pressure on the aviation system stems from changes unleashed on Sept. 11, 2001, when al Qaeda hijackers took over two United Airlines and two American Airlines planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and -- after they were overpowered by the passengers -- a farm field in Pennsylvania.

A sharp drop-off in passenger traffic following the attacks, combined with rising fuel costs, led many airlines to trade in their mid-sized aircraft that seat 130 to 150 people for smaller, more fuel-efficient jets that seat about 50 passengers... “

Perhaps there is some truth in that statement. I believe the larger truth is that the airlines were more interested in “controlling their costs.” That’s code for making sure that “upstart” airlines didn’t take their market and pressuring their long-term employees into wage concessions by paying regional jet pilots the modern-day equivalent of slave wages.

”A number of experts say major air carriers could act in the public interest and begin to address congestion by not packing as many flights into peak morning and evening rush hours and by refraining from overbooking flights on small planes.“

I found this to be the most curious statement in the article. When does any business act in the “public interest” ? That isn’t an insult to any business but a commentary on reality. A business doesn’t have a conscience. It doesn’t even think. It’s a mechanism to make money. It either makes money or it dies. The public interest doesn’t enter into. If donations, sponsorships and supposed goodwill gestures didn’t improve the bottom line then a business wouldn’t do it. If an airline willing gave up a landing slot, another business without such a sense of public duty would take it. This reality is the reason governments and regulations were invented. It’s hard to believe any “expert” (in anything) doesn’t know this. I guess it isn’t as hard to believe they might say it though.

”A typical coast-to-coast commercial flight from Washington to Los Angeles, for example, is handed off nine times -- a laborious process that places significant demands on controllers during peak travel times.“

Whoaaaaa there, Nelly. Which “expert” told the reporter this one ? Would anybody like to claim ownership of this statement ? The reporter is describing a “handoff” and in this day and age, nothing is simpler. You type in three numbers -- say 5 1 7 -- and press the ENTER key. Handoff complete. It’s so easy that we occasionally had to stop trainees from doing it during extremely busy times.

The axiom among controllers is that, if you don’t have enough time to notice a handoff is flashing on your radar scope, you’re too busy to work the airplane. When it gets that busy, controller trainees assisting the radar controller get overwhelmed and the lose “the flick.” As they search desperately for something that needs to be done, a new handoff starts flashing on the scope. “Ah ! Something to do.” 5 1 7 press ENTER. They’ve done something. Taking the handoff is ridiculously easy. It’s finding the time to work the airplane that is hard. And by taking the handoff, that is what the trainee has done. He has told the previous controller that it is safe to let the aircraft enter his airspace. He has time to work the airplane -- whether he really does or not.

I don’t mean to sound too negative about the article. It is lengthy and it has many good points. For instance:

"I think it was pretty difficult for this administration to do flight caps," said a senior Democratic transportation aide in the Senate, who was not authorized to speak for attribution. "They really didn't want to. They've been going all over the world talking about open skies, we need new agreements, open up your markets, and oh, by the way, we're capping the most lucrative one in our country."

I believe that quote to be quite correct. On the flip side of that issue, I was wondering how America was to gain any slots at places like London’s airport -- Heathrow. Heathrow’s landing slots are probably the most coveted in the world. But the international aspects of landing slots is not my area of expertise.

From what I know of The Congressional Quarterly, it is a well respected publication that is widely read by Washington insiders. It concerns me that so many details in this article are flawed if not downright wrong. Especially if government policy makers are using it as a source to make policy. Read the article for yourself and see what you think.

Don Brown
February 5, 2008

Monday, February 04, 2008

When Is a Shortage a Shortage ?

With too few people working too long hours, the ATCs -- men and women who direct pilots for landing and takeoff -- are forced to push the boundaries of safety daily, banking on their skills to make sure every plane and passenger leave and land in Manila just fine.”

I had you going -- right up until that part about Manila -- didn’t I? But that isn’t the best part of the story. This is:

”Working below the standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization (Icao), ATCs carry on the risky business of clearing landings and takeoffs at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) daily despite extended shifts and delayed overtime pay.

The Philippines' failure to comply with ICAO safety standards has prompted the US Federal Aviation Administration to downgrade the country's aviation safety rating to Category 2 from Category 1, or below global safety minimums.“

Whether or not you are convinced that the United States is currently suffering from a dangerous controller shortage -- there is still a question you have to ask yourself. Did anybody downgrade the FAA’s safety rating during the PATCO strike in 1981 ? Well...well...we’re the United States of America ! Nobody tells us what is safe and what isn’t. That might have been true in 1981 but it is less true today. Two words: European Union. Just ask Microsoft about the EU’s clout.

You and I know that a knock-down-drag-out fight between the U.S. and the EU about safety ratings would be unlikely. But don’t forget that the rest of the world hasn’t been real happy with our foreign policy adventures of the last five years. And in case you’ve forgotten how much traffic flies between the U.S. and Europe, keep your eyes on the top right corner of this video.

Or the top left corner. Say ! Where are all those airplanes going ? China ? Or the bottom right corner. Where are they going ? Venezuela ? Not that the rest of South America is happy with us either.

(Thanks for the idea behind this post, James.)

Don Brown
February 4, 2008

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Safety Is Our Job, Stupid

(Author’s note: I wrote this about 3 months ago, immediately after reading the quoted statement below. I was angry when I wrote it, so I put it away. I still like it. And I’m still angry about it.)

"We're frankly disappointed that they're bringing safety into this because everybody knows this is the safest aviation system in the world," said FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto.

It’s hard to imagine a more moronic statement by someone from the FAA regarding air traffic control. Perhaps the best way to educate the average citizen is to go to the dictionary -- the FAA’s dictionary.

“AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL- A service operated by appropriate authority to promote the safe, orderly and expeditious flow of air traffic.”

Safety is first in that definition for a reason. The laws of aerodynamics don’t say a word about air traffic control. Planes can fly without air traffic controllers. Pilots can navigate without air traffic controllers. There is one main reason for air traffic controllers and that reason is to maintain safety. Controllers keep airplanes from hitting each other. Everything else they do is just gravy.

Those three words -- “safe, orderly and expeditious” -- define a controller’s job. Safety is the reason controller’s exist. “Orderly” is because chaos and safety don’t mix. “Expeditious” provides the needed balance. The only way to make aviation completely safe is to keep everyone on the ground. Controllers must balance the need for safety with the need to move airplanes expeditiously. But safety is first. Always.

An underlying obfuscation in that statement from the FAA spokesman should be mentioned. It is indeed the safest period in aviation. The Bush Administration brings up the ghost of 9/11 at every opportunity yet in this “talking point” they omit the fact that air traffic has been down substantially in the period after 9/11. During that same period the air traffic control workforce reached its highest experience levels. Like the stock market, past performance is not indicative of future performance. As more and more experienced controllers retire -- retirements hastened by this Administration’s draconian, imposed work rules -- the experience level of the ATC workforce will continue its free fall while air traffic continues to rise. It is a recipe for disaster.

During much of my career as an air traffic controller I was also a safety representative. It was my unenviable job to think of the unthinkable and think of ways to prevent it. I beg your pardon if you find the following too disturbing to contemplate but my position required that I do so.

Suppose there was a mid air collision over New York (or any other large city.) Two airliners falling from the sky and smashing into tall buildings. Would the damage -- the shear human misery -- be any less than it was on 9/11 ? Air traffic controllers face that nightmare every single day at work, year after year. If the worst ever happens, it won’t be some sanctimonious spokesperson that gets blamed. It will be an air traffic controller. Circumstances might exonerate the controller but the person -- not some faceless institution -- the public will look at first will be an air traffic controller.

How dare the FAA question their own employee’s commitment to safety ? Most people can’t even imagine facing a controller’s responsibility in the abstract -- much less face it in reality -- every single day for 25 years.

If there ever comes a time when controllers don’t bring safety into the conversation it will be time to really start worrying. If the Bush Administration is ever successful in silencing controllers (and they’re closer to that goal than you might imagine) the public will lose the best watchdog they have. No one -- and I mean no one -- understands the complexities of air traffic control better than controllers. Not the FAA Administrator, not the NTSB, not the pilots and certainly not some FAA spokesperson. If controllers stop talking, it will be time to start walking.

Don Brown
February 3, 2008

Saturday, February 02, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- February 2

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Feb 2, 1994: FAA announced that 25 low activity towers (Level 1) would be converted to contract towers, beginning in September 1994. The agency had been contracting the operation of such towers since 1982, and 30 were run on this basis as of the end of 1993. On Nov 28, 1995, FAA announced that it would discontinue funding for 7 low-activity towers, including three contract towers and four FAA-operated facilities. “

It all started long before you ever heard of Blackwater or any of the other contractors in Iraq. And slowly but surely, it is creeping into all segments of our society. I was sitting in a local eatery and reading the signs of the work trucks pulling in and out of the parking lot. They were each bearing the sign of “No-Name Company” and in little letters underneath “A Contractor of Big-Name Company.”

Big-Name Company still needed employees to do the job but they didn’t want to pay the salaries and benefits expected, much less accept the liability that is part of the business. So they contract it out. Any problems ? Blame the contractor and let him go bankrupt. Big-Name Company didn’t cut that corner. No sir. That was the contractor. Big-Name Company didn’t hire those illegal immigrants. No sir. That was the contractor. The fact that no one expects No-Name Company to pay a decent wage is just a little extra perk for the Big-Name Company that accepts billions of taxpayer dollars in various forms (like tax breaks or the use of FAA equipment to run a Tower.)

You might expect this behavior from a private company but your government is engaged in it also. As a matter of fact, your government may be one of the worst offenders. You can read more about the FAA version in a previous post, here on Get the Flick, or you can read the long, sordid history in the form of Congressional testimony from some guy named John Carr.

Don Brown
February 2, 2008

Friday, February 01, 2008

Recent History Reality Check

I’m pretty sure everyone understands I like history by now. My favorite kind of history is recent history. I like history that I can remember and relate to. The kind where I knew what I thought and felt, and now have the chance to go back and see what’s what (if you will.)

The thought occurred to me that it might be time to check, when I read an article about my controller friends in Australia.

Staff shortages reaching crisis point

"Since then other places have closed intermittently," Mr McGuane said. "Melbourne tower has closed a couple of times, Launceston has been on and off for short periods due to staff shortages."

In addition to the safety issues, airlines are increasingly angry that air traffic control delays are combining with bad weather and other factors to significantly degrade on-time performance.”

First, let’s get a little perspective. Melbourne is Australia’s second largest city with a population of 3.7 million. Los Angeles is the second largest city in the United States with a population of 3.8 million. Could you imagine the uproar (not to mention the headlines) in the States if the air traffic control Tower in Los Angeles closed due to a controller staffing shortage ?

Now for the history lesson and reality check. For at least a decade, your government in the United States of America has been trying to get you to believe that we needed to change to the system that brought you this mess in Australia -- privatization. In a few more moments, I will direct you to an article that sums up the position proffered. Try to keep all of the things that I’ve tried to point out in this blog in mind.

The Bush Administration has pushed the neo-conservative agenda since the beginning. Take note that the article appeared in The Washington Times.

”Some have cited it (the Washington Times) along with the Fox News Channel and talk radio as epitomizing the conservative media.”

The article is reprinted on The American Conservative Union’s web page.

I’ve directed you towards Paul Krugman, columnist at The New York Times at least a dozen times. For instance, remember this one where Mr. Krugman said:

”You might think that national security would take precedence over the fetish for privatization — but remember, President Bush tried to keep airport security in private hands, even after 9/11.“

Mr. Krugman has also pointed out that the neo-conservatives have made a cottage industry out of think-tanks to keep the faithful employed and keep the propaganda flowing.

Think people. Take a look around you. The Iraq war, the sub-prime mortgage mess, the coming recession, legalized torture -- it is all connected. Air traffic control is but a small part. It just happens to be the part that I know first-hand. Take a look.

Taming the Air Controller Union

Read it. All of it. Read between the lines. Question the author’s motivations. Question mine. Read the falsehoods. Read the deceptions. Remember where Marion Blakey is today. Remember the promises that she made and compare them with the reality.

"This plan is our blueprint to put the right number of controllers in the right place at the right time ... The plan is good news for our controllers."

FAA Administrator
Marion Blakey
December 2004

The plan was such “good news” for controllers that we retired (and are still retiring) in record numbers. And we took to the blogosphere -- each in our own way -- to warn you of the approaching disaster. Here and here and here and here and here and even here. I and half of those guys are retired. You can’t improve my “working conditions.” You can’t improve my pay. Yet I and the others are still here and we’re still trying.

Read the article. Add it all up. Take note of how the FAA was being “fair” in their contract negotiations, but with a wink, the author lets you know that Congress wasn’t about to act. They’ll claim it was fair, even though they know it wasn’t.

Yet one man did try to act. One man stood up, trying to fulfill his country’s obligation to make the process fair. Read the article and find out who it was. And then watch, as these same political paper peddlers vilify him in the coming months.

You’ll be asked to make a decision soon. The elections on Super Tuesday are right around the corner. Ask yourself a question, “Who will stand up for me ?” I know the answer. I hope you can find your answer.

Don Brown
February 1, 2008

Wow ! I Mean, Welcome !

I doubt if anyone but me has been paying attention to the “hit counter” at the bottom of the page. That requires that I engage in that embarrassing behavior known as self-promotion. (I’m told by people that I trust that it is a necessity.) Forgive me.

James Fallows, of The Atlantic fame, graciously mentioned my humble musings (again) last week which increased the traffic on this blog by over 10 times the normal traffic. Just as that surge was dying down, an outfit called, MetaFilter ( found me (through Mr. Fallows, I feel sure) and that boosted traffic by almost as much.

It sounds like a good time to say “welcome” to all my new readers. I assume you don’t have the time to run through all of my previous posts so I thought it might be helpful if I hit the highlights.

The impetus for this blog can be found in the first post -- Get the Flick. The blog hasn’t changed much because I’m a person that doesn’t change much. Some people call that being a stick-in-the-mud. I prefer to think of it as being consistent.

The post that brought most of the new people here -- ”Air Traffic Safety vs. Capacity" -- highlights this point. There is very little (if anything) in it that I haven’t said before. It was just written for a different audience and in a different format. In that it was successful, I assume I will try the approach again. On occasion.

The rest of the time, what you see is what you get. I will still concentrate on air traffic control issues -- as I also enjoy the freedom retirement has given me to speak out about political issues that affect public policy (especially air traffic control.) And of course, the occasional odd subject that strikes my fancy.

So, for those that have decided to stick around -- Welcome. I hope you find some useful information and enjoy the time you spend here.

I have not enabled the “comments” section (in case you were looking for it.). If you would like to send a comment, please feel free to email me. (Click on the “View my complete profile” link, in the left column, to get to the email link.) I welcome comments, opinions, ideas and information. I just don’t have the time (or inclination) to moderate a comments section.

Don Brown
February 1, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- February 1

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Feb 1, 1991: In a night approach to Los Angeles International Airport, a USAir 737 landed atop a Sky West commuter Fairchild Metroliner III. Both planes then slid into a building as fire began. Fatalities included all 12 persons aboard the commuter flight and 22 of the 89 aboard the USAir flight. On Oct 22, the National Transportation Safety Board listed the accident's probable cause as air traffic control management deficiencies that lead to a controller's issuing inappropriate clearances. FAA actions after the accident included assigning additional controllers to the tower and adjusting runway lights to prevent glare from obstructing the view from the tower. (See Feb 7, 1991.) “

Lest my readers forget (and someone always does), I was a Center controller. I worked enroute traffic on a radar scope. The airspace I worked was north and west of Charlotte, NC and I worked it from a building located south of Atlanta, GA. In other words, I wasn’t in a Tower and I never worked in a building with a window.

This accident happened at Los Angeles International (LAX) and the flights were being worked by the controllers in the Tower. Despite the differences in our respective jobs as controllers, I am struck by the similarities. As evidenced by the name of this blog, I place a tremendous amount of emphasis on having the flick -- being able to see aircraft in your mind as well as with your eyes. It is a very rare -- yet critical -- skill. And it is as delicate as a piece of film running through a movie projector.

The following is from the National Transportation Safety Board’s report on this accident.

”The Safety Board believes that there is no existing automated monitoring system on which a tower can rely to ensure that human performance errors will always be detected. Unlike radar controllers, who have conflict and minimum safe altitude alerting, or most air carrier flightcrews, who have ground proximity and traffic conflict alerting, local and ground controllers must rely almost totally on their eyes, ears and memory to perform their duties. The expectation that controllers can perform for any length of time without error is unwarranted. In addition, the FAA’s expectation of flawless human performance is unrealistic in rapidly changing and dynamic environments that exist at airports such as LAX. Therefore, the Safety Board believes that any job aids and procedures, such as strip marking and flight strip forwarding, which are designed to improve each tower controller’s performance, should be adopted and emphasized, repeatedly, until other independent, automated systems become available. The Safety Board also believe that procedural redundancy through the use of tower cab coordinators, local assist controller and ground control assistants, who can provide a “second set of eyes and ears” should be utilized to the maximum extent possible, especially when traffic conditions warrant that such an additional position be manned.

In the aftermath of the accident at the Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport, involving a B-727 and a Beech King Air that collided on the runway, the Safety Board concluded that the cause of the accident was, “the failure of the FAA to provide air traffic control procedures that adequately take into account those occasional lapses in performance that must be expected.” The Safety Board believes that the circumstances of the Los Angeles runway incursion underscore the need to recognize, acknowledge, and take into account those lapses in performance. The designers and operators of complex systems, such as the ATC system, who fail to fully implement required design features and operating procedures, and who allow a single individual to assume the full burden for safety-critical operations, must share responsibility for occasional human performance errors. The Safety Board believe that the FAA adherence to the National OPS would have provided the redundancy that could have prevented this accident.

(Author’s note: For some reason, I couldn’t “copy and paste” from that report. So, I had to type all of that excerpt in. “...expectation of flawless human performance is unrealistic.” And in that I don’t have an editor and it’s 5:30 AM, I don’t have a “second set of eyes and ears” to check it. It’s a good thing your life doesn’t depend on it.)

You can review the Atlanta accident referenced above here.

Don Brown
February 1, 2008