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

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