Saturday, May 31, 2008

Whistle-Blowers In The Post

Just a quick note to call your attention to an article in The Washington Post.

More Step Up To Complain About FAA

Whistle-Blowers Say Agency Ignored Safety Concerns

In the article, you will read about Peter Nesbitt. Peter and I have been talking to each other, via the internet, for years. Invariably, the conversations have been about safety in air traffic control. The conversations have been intelligent and heartfelt. If Peter says it’s a problem -- I bet that it’s a problem. You can too.

This is so infuriatingly typical of the FAA. The people that care -- the very ones that you want looking after your safety -- are treated the worst of all. Because they actually care enough -- to notice the problems, to bring them management’s attention, to insist that they are fixed -- they are branded a “trouble makers.”

Keep your eyes on Memphis -- the Tower, the Approach Control and the Center. Something tells me that this isn’t over.

Don Brown
May 31, 2008

Friday, May 30, 2008

What About Tomorrow ?

It sounds stupid when I say it but it is what it is. Some of the best analysis of the current administration you’ll ever see was on Comedy Central last night. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has done it again. But before I give you the link, let me say a few things.

First, Jon Stewart is a comedian. A good one. I was watching the video of his interview with Richard Clarke again this morning --trying to select some quotes -- when I noticed most of the insight (and quotes) were coming from Jon Stewart.

Second, Richard Clarke, (like most of Jon’s guests) is trying to sell books. His latest book is Your Government Failed You: Breaking the Cycle of National Security Disasters.

(Time out for a personal message: Honey, if you still can’t find my wish list this will do for Father’s Day.)

Where were we ? Oh yeah, selling books. Richard Clarke is trying to sell books. So what ? Is that supposed to negate what he is saying ? It might make you skeptical. I hope it does. Because I want you to listen very, very closely to what he is saying. I listened to the video three times this morning and picked up something new each time.

“So many people have written these books saying the same thing...”

That’s true. The first one I read was The Price of Loyalty by Paul O’Neill back in 2004. As you may remember, Paul O’Neill was Secretary of the Treasury. Even Mr. Clarke wrote one previously -- Against All Enemies. I read that one too. Both were good, solid books.

“They want to be the government so the government doesn’t do anything.”

That is a slight variation of a theme I’ve expressed before and I like it better. Instead of government being the problem that needs to be abolished or whittled down, just make sure it doesn’t accomplish anything that government is supposed to accomplish. While still spending the tax revenues on their pet projects of course. It fits better with the Bush Administration’s actions.

As Mr. Clarke points out, his new book is about where we go from here.

” do you get the government to work again.”

I won’t spoil Jon Stewart’s punch line for you but Mr. Clarke is right. Think about what it will take to turn around the FAA. If it takes 3-5 years to train a controller, think about how long it takes to make a supervisor. Or a Facility Manager. When word comes down from on high (hopefully) to turn the fleet around, you will still have the same crew and same captain on the individual ships. And right now -- for the most part -- they hate each other. There’s no doubt in my mind that they’ll turn the ship around. But that won’t make them a better captain. And in case it hasn’t hit you, the FAA has already replaced the crew once before and they’re about to do it again. This is going to be really hard and really painful.

Watch the video.

Don Brown
May 30, 2008

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Things That Make You Go...

Things That Make You Go...Huh ?

US transport secretary visits Baghdad air traffic centre

Duh !

US Replacing Air Traffic Control Radars

For me (and I hope my readers) it’s a no-brainer. NextGen isn’t going to replace radar. Or more precisely, ADS-B isn’t going to replace radar. Please note that this story is about ASRs -- Airport Surveillance Radars. That would be radars used to separate airplanes close to the airports. There hasn’t been any new ARSRs Air Route Surveillance Radars installed since the mid-90s. And all of those were on the U.S. Borders. (nice map at the link.) The main radar I used for 25 years was a ARSR-1. And it’s still being used.

(Think 9/11, NORAD was busy looking “out” instead of “in”, the reason ATC lost track of American 77, billions spent upgrading our security but not on radars and all this is a whole other story.)

What I really want you to note is the location of the radar story -- Defense Industry Daily. Well, you could note several things from that but the one I’m after is that fact that it isn’t exactly what you would call “mainstream.” It’s been out there for days -- since May 22nd. Yet, no mainstream news organization has picked it up. And in the same period of time, there have been dozens of stories about upgrading ATC, à la NextGen. There’s reality and then there’s hype.

Somebody has lost the flick.

As for Secretary Peters going to’re on your own. I can’t explain that one.

Don Brown
May 29, 2008

Time is Short

Sorry I’m so slow. As is typical in my life, when it rains it pours. No, no rain in mid-Georgia today. No sun either. That means it’s a perfect time for me to get to those flower beds I’ve been neglecting.

Incredibly, it’s only 68 degrees at 1 P.M. here today. Yesterday I was baking in the sun -- planting vinca. When I woke up today and it was actually cool, I decided to plant while the sun wasn’t shining. Marigolds by the mailbox, petunias in the pots and I finally managed to get the tomato plants in the ground. Most people plant tomatoes on Good Friday around here -- if that gives you any idea how late I am.

I’m afraid it won’t get much better this week. My son graduates high school tomorrow night. My wife is knocking herself out, putting together his party. I’m sure she’s trying to keep her mind off the fact that this chapter of our life is closing. My son has been goofing off all week -- as seniors do. I asked him if he needed me to make his lunch to take to school the other day and he said, “No Dad, you don’t ever have to make my lunch again.”

I missed so much of their growing up -- working all the crazy shifts that controllers work. It’s been nice to at least catch the last part -- these last two years. My daughter has been living at home too -- attending a local college. She will be leaving this fall also, transferring to an out of town college.

Damn those flowers -- always making my eyes water.

Don Brown
May 29, 2008

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Traveler Tips

Barbara S. Peterson has an excellent summation of the current air traffic control situation in Conde Nast Traveler.

Losing Control ?

There isn’t anything surprising in it for my regular readers but that doesn’t take away from the fine job Ms. Peterson has done. You might want to send it on to your friends.

Don Brown
May 27, 2008

Union Busters ‘R Us

Martinlady over at The FAA Follies has been doing a bit of reading of her own. She’s writing a series on the FAA, following a path detailed in a book she read.

Confessions of a Union Buster by Martin Jay Levitt with Terry Conrow

Part one of her series is here.

Part two is here.

For those out there that might not know that there is a whole industry dedicated to busting unions and preventing unions from being formed in the first place -- you might want to start at Wikipedia for some background. If you read all the way to the notes, you’ll notice that Confessions of a Union Buster is cited numerous times.

Because this subject is near and dear to my heart, I could carry on all day. But I’ll limit myself to one story out of the many that come to mind. Conservative dogma cites Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” as the holy scripture in the church of the free market. There is no doubt that Adam Smith’s book The Wealth of Nations is an important work. One day, I might even read it. But I had heard it cited so many times I decided to browse through it for myself. (Have I mentioned how much I love the internet ?)

The Wealth of Nations
Book One
Chapter VIII
Of the Wages of Labour

“We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate. To violate this combination is everywhere a most unpopular action, and a sort of reproach to a master among his neighbours and equals. We seldom, indeed, hear of this combination, because it is the usual, and one may say, the natural state of things, which nobody ever hears of. Masters, too, sometimes enter into particular combinations to sink the wages of labour even below this rate. These are always conducted with the utmost silence and secrecy, till the moment of execution, and when the workmen yield, as they sometimes do, without resistance, though severely felt by them, they are never heard of by other people.”

Adam Smith

“...they are never heard of by other people.“ Most of our fellow citizens have never heard that the air traffic controllers are working under imposed work rules. Of those that have, most don’t know that the FAA hired a professional union buster -- Joe Miniace -- to handle negotiations with the controllers. Just in case that didn’t grab you, let me spell it out. Your tax dollars paid for a professional union buster.

I hope that doesn’t make any of my readers feel like I think they’re dense. In case it did, let me make it up to you. Piece together the puzzle.

1) FDR’s election in ‘33
2) The Uprising of ‘34
3) The foundation of The Family in ‘35
4) The Taft-Hartley Act in 1947
5) The PATCO strike in 1981

Keep plugging in the pieces of the puzzle and see if you can figure out how we got here.

The next time you read phrases like “declining wages” or “the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression” or “the greatest concentration of wealth since the 1920s”’ll have an idea of how we got here, who brought us and why I’m reading books like American Theocracy, Titan and FDR. And yes (while I’m looking up links), Jeff Sharlet’s The Family is already on my wish list.

Don Brown
May 27, 2008

Monday, May 26, 2008

Midway in FDR

Just a quick note to let you know how much I’m already enjoying FDR by Jean Edward Smith. I’m only up to the period of Roosevelt’s first 100 days as President and I’m already enthralled with the book. The period of Roosevelt’s youth was so different -- he was raised in such alien (to me) conditions of wealth and privilege -- that the parallels between the economic crisis of the 1930’s and the current sub-prime-mortgage-inspired mess make for fascinating reading.

It is troubling to read how FDR was showered with adulation -- and power. He had to know the dangers of that power. He referred to Huey P. Long (Louisiana’s “Kingfish”) as the second most dangerous man in America -- second only to General Douglas MacArthur. Yet he embraced all and used them for his purposes.

I’ve read extensively about FDR. He’s my favorite President. It’s early -- but not too early to tell you that this book is a winner.

Don Brown
May 26, 2008

Sunday, May 25, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- May 25

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

”May 25, 1979: An American Airlines DC-10 crashed into an open field near Chicago's O'Hare airport after its left engine and pylon assembly separated from the aircraft on takeoff. The engine and pylon rotated up and over the left wing, taking part of the wing’s leading edge with them and damaging the control system. The ensuing crash and fire killed all 272 persons aboard the flight and two people on the ground, an unprecedented toll for an airline accident within U.S. airspace.

Early in its investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board discovered the presence of a fatigue fracture of a pylon forward thrust link attach bolt. On May 28, FAA Administrator Langhorne Bond ordered all airlines to keep their DC-10s on the ground until they had completed certain visual inspections. The next day, after learning that these checks were turning up potentially dangerous deficiencies in the pylon mountings, Bond grounded the entire U.S. DC-10 fleet pending a more comprehensive inspection. His order included U.S.-certificated Airbus A-300s because of the similarity of their pylon to the DC-10's.

As these inspections progressed, evidence mounted that the problem might lie in American Airline's non-standard use of a forklift to dismount and remount engine and pylon as a single unit during maintenance. Similar cracks had been found on DC-10s operated by Continental Airlines, the only other carrier using the forklift method. On Jun 5, however, the discovery of cracks that appeared unrelated to the forklift procedure strengthened evidence that seemed to suggest the existence of some more fundamental problem. On Jun 6, Bond suspended the DC-10's type certificate indefinitely. He then ordered three parallel investigations into the DC-10 issue.

Thirty-seven days later, FAA's investigative teams concluded that the aircraft destroyed in Chicago had indeed been damaged by the forklift procedure. This was also the cause of the other cracks found in the pylons of DC-10s operated by American and Continental. (The two airlines later received civil penalties of $500,000 and $100,000 respectively for using the procedure.) Other findings of the teams supported the conclusion that the DC-10 should be returned to service, and FAA therefore lifted the grounding order. The agency required a stringent program of inspections, however, and directed the manufacturer to redesign certain engine mount components. ”

The accident investigation was quite complicated and centered on the maintenance procedure used by American. You might be interested in the side issue of the controllers working the flight. When it comes to aviation, controllers often have front-row seats to disasters no one wants to witness.

Witness to American Airlines Flight 191

I’m glad I worked in a Center.

Don Brown
May 25, 2008

Saturday, May 24, 2008

More Cool Maps

I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned this site before or not. They have some way-cool animated maps -- including a “new” one on:

The March of Democracy

In case I haven’t mentioned them, they have more at:

Maps of War

Don Brown
May 24, 2008

Friday, May 23, 2008

A Hole In Our History

A few days ago, as I was poking fun at my heritage, I was reminded of a bit of history that I believe worth sharing. In the mid 1990s, PBS showcased a documentary film entitled The Uprising of ‘34 on their series P.O.V. (Point of View).

I was absolutely dumbfounded by the program. The event itself was amazing but what stunned me was my complete lack of knowledge about it. I was in my mid-30s, I’d lived in the area of the event my entire life, I had helped start a union and yet -- I was completely ignorant of the largest strike in American history.

This quote from The Uprising of ‘34 highlights my point.

”Kathy Lamb, a former mill worker's daughter, is flabbergasted that her father never mentioned the strike. "I can't understand why my Dad didn't tell me. He could talk about the war and about people being blown to bits, but he couldn't talk about his neighbors being killed. It's like somebody trying to hide a dirty secret about their family, like they're ashamed. They ought to be proud of them. They stood up when other people wouldn't." “

I find it incredible that a society has so completely obliterated a historically significant event. The Haymarket Massacre in 1886 provided us with the lasting legacy of “the bomb-throwing anarchist” but a strike involving 400,000 people -- in which six picketers were killed in Honea Path, South Carolina -- has been wiped from our collective conscience. My grandparents lived a couple of counties over, in another of the endless mill villages in the Piedmont. That entire side of my family had worked in the cotton mills -- after coming out of the coal mines in southwest Virginia. I had never, ever heard a peep out of anybody about this strike. I just knew that unions were talked about only in whispers -- as if such talk was dangerous.

I urge you to explore this forgotten piece of history. I was going to buy the DVD of The Uprising of ‘34 so that I could refresh my memory -- until I found out it was $500 dollars. (Yes, it is curious.) I guess I’ll wait for PBS to run it again.

In the meantime, you can read more about the strike at Wikipedia.

Textile workers strike (1934)

While you are at Wikipedia, you might as well read about the Battle of Blair Mountain too. For the aviation fans (assuming any are still with me), you can read how General Billy Mitchell planned to use airpower to disperse the strikers. (Warning: Read more than one account of the story before you start quoting anything as gospel. What General Mitchell said and what he did are two different things.)

After you read all this, please sit down and do some serious thinking. Ostensibly, companies always fight unions to keep costs down so that the company remains in business. Looking at the cotton mills of the South, the companies successfully crushed any thought of unionizing. Wages stayed low -- and unions stayed out -- even into our times. As a matter of fact, wages stayed low until the cotton mills left for even poorer people in greener, foreign pastures.

What did the workers get ? I know what the mill owners got. Their children went to the nice schools, went to the good colleges and still live off the money their parents made -- until this very day. What did the worker’s children get ? Some got out. My family is living proof of that. A lot didn’t. What did their children get ? Besides another generation of poverty ?

Contrast that with the auto industry or the steel industry. The unions negotiated good wages and good benefits. They didn’t live in poverty. They became the middle class. Which was better for our country ?

There needs to be a balance between workers, company owners, corporations, citizens and our government. Finding that balance is never easy. It seems easier to judge if there was a healthy balance in the past. The problem is, we need to determine if there is a healthy balance now. I don’t believe there is. And I don’t believe we should wait until things are so bad that the government is shooting its citizens, before we act.

A little over the top you say ? Too far in the past to be relevant ? If you’re my age, ask your kids what they know about Kent State. “Kent State ?”, my daughter asked. “Never heard of it.”

Don Brown
May 23, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- May 23

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

”May 23, 1981: At its annual convention, in New Orleans, PATCO set a Jun 21 deadline for reaching agreement on a new contract with FAA. PATCO President Robert Poli said if agreement was not reached by that date the union would poll its members for a strike vote. Newspapers quoted Poli as vowing that the "the skies will be silent" if FAA's negotiators did not "come to their senses." (See Apr 28, 1981, and Jun 18, 1981.)”

NATCA has their convention this year -- in September. It is shaping up to be an historic event.

You may not know it -- I’m not sure most controllers realize it -- but this is a perilous time. The conditions that controllers are suffering right now cannot continue. Something will change. And very different groups of very clever people have very different ideas on how to make change.

Pat Forrey is the current president of NATCA and he is under tremendous pressure. Controllers want the conditions of their workplace improved. Controllers are not patient people. Either Pat will deliver or they will find someone else who can. Or the situation will spiral out of control. Pat is not stupid. He knows this. The question is, “Do you ?”

This post is supposed to be another history lesson. I write them in hope that I can pass along some knowledge that will make us all smarter if not wiser. If you haven’t read The Pressures of PATCO let me encourage you to do so. Read it with a critical eye. Do you remember what I wrote about yesterday -- ERAM ? It a nutshell, it’s technology. Do you remember that I’m retired ? You’ve got to ask yourself on occasion, “Why do I still care ?” The answer to that is complicated but it’s obvious that it isn’t the money. A lot of people -- a lot of controllers --think it’s the money. It isn’t.

From The Pressures of PATCO

” Finally, advancing technology played a key role in both the cause and the resolution of the strike. Controllers, for the most part, paid little attention to the implications of automation on their occupation, although PATCO occasionally faulted the FAA's emphasis on equipment instead of people. Most controllers believed in the centrality and necessity of human skill and judgment to the system. Indeed, they welcomed almost any equipment or programs that might assist them in their work. At the same time, though, an overwhelming number of individual ATC complaints singled out stress as a primary motive for striking. Greater air traffic volume and increased demands on ATC capabilities made possible by new technology, coupled with faulty equipment and autocratic management that limited workplace autonomy, were the obvious causes of such stress. Yet neither PATCO nor the controllers made this connection explicit or strongly challenged management privilege to decide the nature and purpose of computers in air towers.

Meanwhile, FAA officials clearly saw automation as a means of eliminating dependence on skilled controllers. As an editorial in “Aviation Week and Space Technology” commented, "few federal bureaucrats have the chance to fire 70% of their departments and replace the victims with lower-salaried recruits--or with computers and black boxes." In 1982 J. Lynn Helms (head of the FAA) announced a twenty year program costing between $15 and $20 billion to replace the system's aging computers and further move towards automating air control.“

Let me quote myself a couple of times so I can make sure I’ve made the point.

Instead of using technology to assist controllers, they keep trying to make it replace controllers.”

They’re trying to turn controllers into ‘mouse-clicking monkeys.’ “

But it’s so much easier to focus on the money. It’s easier to explain, easier to understand and easier to assign blame. It’s easier to emotionalize. “Greedy bastards !” “Slave wages.”

From The Pressures of PATCO

” A critical component contributing to and ensuring the acceptance of this view was PATCO's own demands and rhetoric. Poli's emphasis on economic benefits served to subsume the basic struggle over power in the workplace; mask the links among stress, autocratic management, and workplace control; and undermine the moral position of the strikers in the eyes of the country. By basing a strike on an action critique of specific FAA techniques rather than an ideological and theoretical critique of managerial control and its relationship to stress, PATCO earned few supporters and the basic issue of manager-labor power remained unaddressed.“

(Emphasis added)

As I said, these are perilous times. Somebody needs to get the flick. Unfortunately, I don’t think that will be Bush, Peters or Sturgell. Do you ?

And there’s one more thing (isn’t there always ?) that you might want to plug into the equation.

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

”Jan 7, 1980: John F. Leyden resigned as president of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association (PATCO) after a bitter struggle for control of the organization with Robert E. Poli, a regional vice president. Both Poli and Leyden had submitted their resignations to the PATCO board, but the board accepted only Leyden's resignation. Leyden resigned effective Feb 1, and Poli became interim president on that day. Poli subsequently was elected to a three-year term on Apr 24. (See May 4, 1979, and Apr 15, 1980.)“

Perilous indeed.

Don Brown
May 23, 2008

Thursday, May 22, 2008

ERAM Update

For those that don’t remember, ERAM stands for En Route Automation Modernization. Not that it will help you much, but the FAA’s babble-speak about ERAM is here. ERAM is to be the computer guts of the air traffic control system. It’s the software and hardware that will crunch the bits and bytes so that the airplanes don’t go crunch. Unfortunately, that may be the literal truth. Responsibility for the traveling public may be changing hands from thousands of air traffic controllers to a few computer programmers.

The problem is that we don’t know. Put your thinking cap on. This isn’t simple. You need to hold several thoughts in your head to follow along and you’ll need to remember what has been transpiring in the FAA for the last several years.

First, air traffic controllers -- in the form of NATCA -- were kicked off all the controller liaison positions three years ago. In order to understand how ignorant that leaves you (the Public), think about how little you would know about aircraft inspections at Southwest without union members blowing the whistle. If local FAA managers were doing the inspections you still wouldn’t know about it and the Administration would still be protecting their plausible deniability.

Next -- like everything in the Government these days -- the work is being done by contractors. They get paid bonuses for delivering “on time.” In addition, the FAA has instituted “pay for performance.” You don’t get paid a bonus for saying “Hey !...wait a minute...this isn’t right.” You get paid for throwing the switch and turning it on. The rumor is that ERAM will be on time and it will work -- no matter what the reality.

You’ve read my thoughts about URET. That system takes away a controller’s ability to “see” traffic without radar. It forces the controller to rely on the computer programmer’s ability to see traffic. You might think that sentence is phrased kind of funny but it is phrased exactly as I intended. “The computer” doesn’t think. Nor does it feel or learn. Somebody is making the decisions. If that person isn’t a controller then it’s a programmer.

Now toss in the fact that the FAA is losing it’s experienced controllers. A new controller that has never read a flight progress strip outside of the fantasy world of simulation doesn’t know a thing about “projecting.” He doesn’t know what the traffic will look like before it shows up on his radar. He just knows what the computer tells him. Correction -- He just knows what the programmer is telling him. Project that line of thought onto ERAM -- a program that is being designed without controller input. I’m sure there are managers working on it that used to be controllers. If you think that is the same thing as a controller you haven’t been paying attention.

Now turn the computer off.

The software that ERAM will replace was the biggest program and the most complicated software ever written up until that time. Do you think ERAM will be any less complicated for its time ? Do you think it won’t crash ?

Remember, the last time the FAA tried to replace this software was the complete and utter failure known as the Advanced Automation System. One of the sub-stories behind that failure was the inability to meet the human factors concerns. The technological part was daunting enough. The human factors part proved impossible. Those pesky humans -- always getting in the way.

In listening to controllers discuss ERAM, it’s clear that they’ve been cut out of the process. They’re picking up their information second and third-hand -- even as the equipment is being installed in their facilities. That, in of itself, ought to make you nervous.

In my day, the FAA told us the Advanced Automation System would make us airspace “managers” instead of controllers. They were wrong. Today -- with ERAM -- it sounds like they’re trying again. Another controller summed it up better. They’re trying to turn controllers into “mouse-clicking monkeys.” If the computer is “green” you’re good. If the computer is “red”, click the mouse until it turns “green.”

Controllers might have to worry that the programmers are right but you have to worry about what happens if they’re wrong. Those programmers and FAA managers won’t be sitting in front of a radar scope when it breaks. And none of them will be sitting next to you in that airplane when the “red” won’t go away and the mouse won’t click. You’ll be on your own.

You might want to make sure ERAM works. Don’t ask me how you can do that when controllers don’t know. I guess you’ll have to ask the FAA. I sure hope they’re better at inspecting computer programs than they are at inspecting airplanes.

Don Brown
May 22, 2008

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Good Grief

It’s a good thing I don’t have a job (still.) Otherwise, I’d never be able to keep up. I just finished writing today’s post and on my first pass through the internet I’ve got a week’s worth of blogging.

A plain and simple letter to the editor from my good friend Chuck Adams made it into Google News. It’s just like Chuck -- respectful, sincere and straight to the point.

Clear Senate FAA bill for takeoff

Chuck is a rock. He’s a controller in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He’s the kind of guy that makes me proud to have been a controller and the kind of guy that makes you proud to be an American. I could go on all day but I’ll leave it at this -- he’s one of the finest people I know.

I barely know Dick Smith but he made it into the news in Australia.

Low pay 'forcing air traffic controllers out of jobs'

”The former chair of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) says there is a dangerous shortage of air traffic controllers in Australia.”

I bumped into Mr. Smith on the ‘net a few years back. He is a very interesting individual. He also has a wicked sense of humor. I’m not sure if it’s a fair (much less flattering) comparison, but for Americans...imagine if Ted Turner was passionate about aviation and became Administrator of the FAA. I really need to visit Australia. It sounds like loads of fun.

This doesn’t though.

”Radio and radar systems were down for three hours early this morning. Up to 24 planes were affected. Had it occurred at peak time, one controller said, the danger 'would have been incalculable.' “

That is from yesterday’s L.A. Times. You might be noticing a troubling trend. No system is fail-proof. That is the reason air traffic control (and aviation in general) has so many backup systems and so much redundancy. What is troubling me is the radios and the radars going out at the same time. And it isn’t the first time it has happened.

I can’t tell you what is wrong but I have my suspicions. Whatever it is, it needs to get fixed. Pronto. It’s beyond dangerous.

Now I really have to go do something. I can’t sit and type on this computer all day.

Don Brown
May 21, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- May 21

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

”May 21, 1958: Senator A. S. Mike Monroney (D-Okla.) introduced S. 3880, a bill "to create an independent Federal Aviation Agency, to provide for the safe and efficient use of the airspace by both civil and military operations and to provide for the regulation and promotion of civil aviation in such a manner as to best foster its development and safety." By the next day 33 Senators were listed as cosponsors of the bill, and Representative Oren Harris (D-Ark.) introduced the same bill as H.R. 12616.

On Jun 13, President Eisenhower, in a message to Congress, recommended early enactment of such legislation to consolidate "all the essential management functions necessary to support the common needs of our civil and military aviation." (See Aug 23, 1958.) ”

Fifty years is an anniversary that calls for a little reflection. Let’s review.

From yesterday’s entry, we know that The Air Commerce Act became law in 1926.

Then came the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938. This entry will highlight a disturbing trend in aviation history.

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

”May 6, 1935: A Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA) DC-2 crashed near Atlanta, Mo., killing five of the eight persons aboard. Senator Bronson M. Cutting (R-N.Mex.) was among the fatalities. A Bureau of Air Commerce report cited the accident’s causes as the U.S. Weather Bureau’s failure to predict hazardous weather and misjudgments by the pilot and TWA ground personnel. In June 1936, however, a committee chaired by Sen. Royal S. Copeland (D-N.Y.) issued a report alleging that the tragedy was caused by malfunctioning navigational aides and voicing other criticisms of the Bureau of Air Commerce. The controversy gave impetus to legislative efforts that eventuated in the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938. (See Jun 23, 1938.) “

In 1940, the Civil Aeronautics Authority was reorganized into the the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB -- economic regulation and accident investigations) and the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA -- operations.)

After World War Two and the Korean War it was painfully obvious that there needed to be better integration between the military and civilian air traffic control systems. Back then, much like now, it was hard to find the time to focus on the problem and generate the political will needed to make the change. That is when history gets made.

Jun 30, 1956: A Trans World Airlines Super Constellation and a United Air Lines DC-7 collided over the Grand Canyon, Ariz., killing all 128 occupants of the two airplanes. “

Apr 21, 1958: An Air Force jet fighter collided with a United Air Lines DC-7 near Las Vegas, Nev., killing both occupants of the fighter and all 47 persons aboard the airliner. Another midair collision between a military jet and an airliner occurred on May 20 when a T-33 trainer and a Capital Airlines Viscount collided over Brunswick, Md. This second accident cost the lives of one of the two persons aboard the T-33 and all 11 aboard the Viscount. The twin tragedies spurred governmental action already underway to improve air traffic control and to establish a comprehensive Federal Aviation Agency. (See May 21 and May 28, 1958.) “

As the last entry notes, obviously Senator Monroney had been working on the bill to create the FAA for some time. You don’t write a piece of legislation that large overnight. In short, the problems in the National Airspace System were well known, solutions had been discussed, but the will to act couldn’t be found. Until the sky started falling.

If you took the time to click on the link for Senator Monroney above, you discovered he was called “Mr. Aviation.” There’s another Congressman that has earned the title now and he too has a bill that is awaiting action. We all recognize the problems we face. We may not agree on the solutions but we all know that what we’re doing right now isn’t one.

The airlines limp from one financial crisis to another. Pay, morale and experience are declining faster than their downward-spiraling profits. They can only afford one parachute per airline because it is golden. Unlike the captains of yore, it is the workers that are expected to go down with these ships.

The FAA is in shambles. A leaderless, mangy mutt -- suffering from a diet rich in pork but with little substance -- the citizens are left wondering if we should rehabilitate it or just shoot it and put it out of it’s misery.

History tells us that this will not end well. Either the citizens (that means you) will motivate their Congressmen to act or we’ll sit around and wait for Mr. Murphy to act -- thereby providing the needed motivation.

What’s it going to be ? Will you write your Representatives and your Senators and change history ? Or will history repeat itself ?

Don Brown
May 21, 2008

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- May 20

There are a multitude of entries for today, May 20th, in the FAA’s history. I’ve decided to go with the very first entry in the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996 -- the Air Commerce Act of 1926.

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

”May 20, 1926: President Calvin Coolidge signed the Air Commerce Act of 1926 into law. The act instructed the Secretary of Commerce to foster air commerce; designate and establish airways; establish, operate, and maintain aids to air navigation (but not airports); arrange for research and development to improve such aids; license pilots; issue airworthiness certificates for aircraft and major aircraft components; and investigate accidents. (See Introduction.) ”

As significant as that is, tomorrow is just as significant. This date brought about the straw that broke the camel’s back -- another mid-air collision that finally forced the government to act.

Don Brown
May 20, 2008

King of the Hill -- A History

Two weeks ago I mentioned Kevin Phillip’s book, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21stCentury , in my post Watching the Watcher. Mr. Phillips had an editorial in The Washington Post on Sunday that explains his positions in more detail. As a matter of fact, from my perspective, it was a pretty good summation of the book. In other words, if you find the editorial interesting you’ll like the book.

Speaking of books, Mr. Phillips has a new one out -- Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism . I suspect I’ll wind up reading that one too. Mr. Phillips was a strategist for Richard Nixon. He came up with “the Southern strategy” -- the political strategy that won the South for Nixon and transformed many a “yellow-dog Democrat” into a Republican. Mr. Phillips has since turned on the Republican Party with all the zeal of a reformed sinner.

Mr. Phillips has the gift of seeing into future further than most. Take a look at the editorial and see what you think.

The Old Titans All Collapsed. Is the U.S. Next?

I hope he isn’t as right about the future as he has been in the past.

Don Brown
May 20, 2008

Monday, May 19, 2008

Off Topic Map

Most of you won’t be interested. I just want to be able to reference this map quickly in the coming months. It’s the Congressional Districts for Georgia.

I once heard that the 3rd district of Georgia (my district) has more air traffic controllers in it than any other district in the nation. I wouldn’t know how to check that out but it makes me wonder if we have more retired controllers than anyone else. Retired controllers -- unlike active controllers -- can fully participate in the political process. I’ve already started. How about you ?

Don Brown
May 19, 2008

Are We There Yet ?

Once again, John Carr has one of those posts up that have made The Main Bang famous. I never can figure out where John finds the time -- but he does. It’s a long and detailed post. Everybody finds something different in it. Here’s what I found.

”Last 7 days we have had 35 CAT A errors, and that was the terminal option only.

Operational errors are 100% preventable. It’s one clearance at a time, and make sure to get that read back. Don’t go to the next task until a proper read back has been obtained. These sloppy techniques are getting us into trouble. “

I told you everybody finds something different. Most people “find” stuff like this:

”Only avenue left for NATCA is to sue the FAA in court. Not sure if they will go that far. “ (Author’s note: I’m sure they will. I’m not sure why the manager is not sure. NATCA has been trying to get to court for 624 days. The reason the Bush appointees have been dragging their feet -- refusing to issue rulings -- is to keep NATCA from getting to the courts.)

”Retention and re-hired annuitants: the FAA is thinking about re-hiring our retirees. “

”The Academy standards are being raised. There was some concern that New Hires have not been properly trained in the Academy, resulting in low ATC knowledge “

”Mulitple landing clearances will be coming to an end. “ (Author’s note: An end to “anticipated separation” for those that know what that is.)

Supposedly these are notes from a supervisor’s meeting (convention ?) in Denver. I have no reason to doubt that they are in that I heard exactly the same advice at least 10 years ago. I can see a guy named Russ saying those exact words in a training session and most of the room (full of controllers) laughing at him.

”Don’t go to the next task until a proper read back has been obtained.“

If taken literally -- even if taken in the spirit it was intended -- it would mean the biggest slowdown in air traffic control since PATCO. (Mind you, that wouldn’t bother me at all.) Controllers are lucky if they can get an adequate readback much less a “proper” one. As I told you on Saturday, no one that I know of has a program in place to ensure pilots use “proper” phraseology.

Let me show you how this goes. A restriction controllers issue hundreds of times a day goes like this.

”U S Air one twenty three cross SHINE intersection at and maintain one one thousand at two five zero knots Charlotte altimeter two niner niner two” (The lack of punctuation is intentional)

What controllers will typically get back is:

”Eleven and two fifty at SHINE one twenty three “

Actually, because of “clipping”, we’ll hear this:

”...ven and two fifty at SHINE one twenty three “

Actually, even my use of the word “typically” is misleading. Virtually every readback from every pilot is non-standard so that controllers must decode virtually every readback. As I said, controllers issue that clearance in exactly the same order hundreds of times a day. But we rarely receive exactly the same readback.

”Eleven and two fifty at SHINE one twenty three “

”Ninety two in the box, down to eleven and two fifty at SHINE one twenty three”

”Uhhhh U S Air one twenty three uhhhh eleven and two fifty at SHINE twenty nine ninety two”

”Two fifty eleven ninety two one twenty three”

You be the judge. Which of those is “adequate” ? (None of them are
“proper”.) If a controller took the advice offered literally -- “Don’t go to the next task until a proper read back has been obtained “ -- how long do you think it would take him to complete that one exchange ? All day ?

I know some people actually do want to use proper phraseology so here are a couple of cites to get you headed in the right direction.


4-2-4. Aircraft Call Signs

a. Precautions in the Use of Call Signs.

5. Air carriers and commuter air carriers having FAA authorized call signs should identify themselves by stating the complete call sign (using group form for the numbers) and the word "heavy" if appropriate.

1. United Twenty-Five Heavy.

2. Midwest Commuter Seven Eleven.

4-2-9. Altitudes and Flight Levels

a. Up to but not including 18,000 feet MSL, state the separate digits of the thousands plus the hundreds if appropriate.

1. 12,000 one two thousand

4-2-11. Speeds

The separate digits of the speed followed by the word "KNOTS." Except, controllers may omit the word "KNOTS" when using speed adjustment procedures; e.g., "REDUCE/INCREASE SPEED TO TWO FIVE ZERO."

(Speed) 250 two five zero knots


When the FAA gets serious about teaching phraseology to pilots they can then get serious about enforcing the use of proper phraseology. Until then, they’ll just keep having errors and blaming controllers for not getting a proper readback.

Most people tend to focus on the big ticket items. I look at the details. Going to Federal court sounds a lot more interesting than phraseology. Rehiring retired controllers sounds like big news. Phraseology sounds duller than dirt. In my eyes, these interesting, big-ticket items are distractions that take our attention away from the little details that keep the system safe. Until we can focus on these details, we’ll continue our journey towards disaster and I’ll keep asking, “Are we there yet ?”

Don Brown
May 19, 2008

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Guess Who ?

Can you guess who said this ?

” Let me make one thing plain. I respect the right of workers in the private sector to strike. Indeed, as president of my own union, I led the first strike ever called by that union. I guess I'm maybe the first one to ever hold this office who is a lifetime member of an AFL - CIO union. “

That would have been President Ronald Reagan on August 3, 1981 -- the first day of the PATCO strike.

I have no idea why The Virginia Gazette published this transscript of a 1981 press conference today. But they did. Maybe they’re as amused as I am about the continuing efforts to canonize Reagan.

Don Brown
May 18, 2008

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Fitting in Phraseology

My thoughts keep turning to phraseology -- even in retirement. The subject keeps coming up in various places. The FAA Follies had a post about it yesterday, I’ve had a couple of readers mention it and I’ve been trying to develop a new lecture on the subject. The problem I keep coming back to again and again is that there aren’t any realistic ways of teaching the subject to pilots and letting them practice. I should rephrase that. The methods for teaching and practicing phraseology lack realism.

Controllers get to master phraseology by doing. We talk all day -- everyday. Virtually everything controllers do requires communication on a telephone or radio and 90% of that has formal phraseology attached to it. Pilots, on the other hand, only talk on the radio at random intervals. Except in rare cases, it is sporadic. Airline pilots use phraseology on a more consistent basis than most and even that amount is miniscule in comparison to controllers. A general aviation pilot might not talk on the radio for weeks at a time. Proficiency will always be a problem for pilots but most of the problems start at the very beginning -- learning proper phraseology to start with.

I’ve already touched three major problem areas (and I’m just getting started.)

1) Learning proper phraseology

2) Practicing phraseology in a realistic environment

3) Remaining proficient in using proper phraseology

I spent a little time reading one of my old articles on AVweb this morning. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well most of my articles have stood up over time. Trust me, it’s mostly beginner’s luck. Anyway, while I’m thinking out loud (which is what I’m doing in case you haven’t noticed), I thought it would be as good a place as any to review what has already been done.

Say Again? #20: Communications — The Top Ten

You’re welcome to read the whole thing of course but a summary of the list is...

10) Format -- saying the proper words in the proper sequence
9) Questions -- There are no question marks (?) in phraseology
8) Direct vs. "Cleared to" -- “cleared to” does not mean “cleared direct”
7) Ride Reports -- a primary cause of frequency congestion
6) Key Words -- omission of key words
5) Mumbling -- just what it says
4) Call Signs -- improper use of, or omission of
3) Requests -- another primary cause of frequency congestion
2) Clipping -- “clipping” off the first word of a transmission
1) Frequency Congestion -- the number one bottleneck of ATC

As you can see from the list, once you start talking about phraseology it’s hard not to delve into other areas of communication. Which brings me to what I believe is the most critical part of phraseology -- learning correct phraseology from the very start. We need to instill good habits in students before they know enough about aviation to start asking “Why ?”.

As it stands now, people learn to fly and then proper phraseology is tacked on as an afterthought (if at all.) I’m sitting here trying to remember being taught proper phraseology -- and I can’t. (Current FAA academy students are welcome to refresh my memory.) I know it was taught at the academy but it was such an integral part of ATC that you take it for granted. One thing I’m certain of though, improper phraseology was corrected on the spot -- before you developed any bad habits.

Oh well, that’s enough for today. It’ a beautiful day outside and I have flower beds to rearrange. I’ll think while I dig, weed and plant. We’ll spend more time on the subject soon.

Don Brown
May 17, 2008

Friday, May 16, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- May 16

Here is something new for today’s history lesson -- a political two-for-one.

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

”May 16, 1940: President Roosevelt called for the production of 50,000 airplanes a year. Since there were only about 30,000 pilots in the country, CAA subsequently announced that it would expand the Civilian Pilot Training Program to provide pilots for the increased number of planes. In 1940, the CPTP graduated 9,885 pilots, and in the 18 months before the United States entered the war, the number of pilots in the country rose from 31,000 to over 100,000, primarily throught the CPTP. (See Jun 27, 1939, and Dec 12, 1941.) ”

Dang ! If only I had finished that piece about Billy Mitchell bombing hillbillies I could really tie all this in. Alas...

The important thing to note -- Roosevelt knew he had a war coming and he knew how he wanted to fight it. Airpower. You’ll have to read your history to understand his brilliance. Remember, at this time the U.S. was in a depression and dead-set against becoming involved in the war. It was a good thing -- in that we were a third-rate military power.

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

”May 16, 1972: President Nixon signed into law the Air Traffic Controllers Career Program Act (Public Law 92-297). The act, an outgrowth of a Corson Committee recommendation (see Jan 29, 1970), authorized controllers to retire after 25 years of active duty, or at age 50 if they had 20 years of active service. The new law also established a mandatory age for retirement at 56, with exemptions at the discretion of the Secretary of Transportation up to age 61. (Normal voluntary retirement for Federal employees came at age 55 after 30 years service, or at age 60 after 20 years; mandatory retirement came at age 70.) The act also provided for a “second career program” of up to two years of training at government expense for controllers who had to leave traffic control work because of medical or proficiency disqualification. The act became effective on Aug 14 and was implemented by FAA on Sep 8.”

As NATCA enters it’s 621st day without a contract, I wanted to remind the newer generation that Republicans haven’t always been crazy. They’ve never been friendly to unions but they were, once upon a time, at least practical.

Don Brown
May 16, 2008

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Fix On Fail

There is something I’ve been meaning to get off my chest and this press release from PASS (Professional Aviation Safety Specialists) will serve as well as any other excuse.


”Some facilities are staffed at less than half of what the facility’s workload generates, making daily operations difficult and resulting in more unplanned outages and longer restoration times. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), there has been an increase in unscheduled outages from an average of 21 hours in 2001 to about 40 hours in 2006. Despite falling below the minimum number of technicians, the FAA has not requested additional staffing in its proposed budget for FY 2009.“

The shortfall in technicians has been met with a new maintenance philosophy that has been called “Fix on Fail.” In short, the FAA doesn’t have the manpower to keep up with preventative maintenance anymore so they don’t. They fix it when it fails. We could get bogged down in all the details within that issue but I have a different angle I want to pursue.

My long-time readers know that I have real issues with the system called URET that was used to replace flight progress strips. The backup to URET is flight progress strips. The backup to radar is non-radar. There is a huge difference between seeing what is on a radar scope and “seeing” what in your head when you’re working in non-radar conditions. If you don’t practice “thinking” non-radar you won’t be any good at it because in the vast majority of day-to-day operations in air traffic control it isn’t required.

Each of these subjects -- URET, flight progress strips, non-radar, etc. -- are extremely complicated in of themselves. I’m asking the impossible of non-controllers but I need you to think of them all together and how they interact. Even worse, I need you project forward in time and think about where we are headed.

It all goes back to my lame joke about non-radar. “What did they call non-radar before radar ?” Answer: Air Traffic Control. Non-radar is the foundation of all air traffic control. Flight progress strips allowed controllers to “think” non-radar and incorporate that thought process when using radar. URET was used to replace flight progress strips in the Centers. URET doesn’t allow you to “think” non-radar (there is no fix/time displayed) nor does it allow controllers to practice the mechanical skills needed with flight progress strips, i.e. strip marking. Yet, the backup to URET is flight progress strips. Furthermore, URET isn’t certified for use in non-radar conditions. In other words, if the radar is out, using flight progress strips is required.

And the FAA is cutting back on preventative maintenance ?!?

If you project this mess forward in time the consequences are even more frightening. As more and more senior controllers retire, there will be fewer and fewer controllers left that have even seen flight progress strips much less know how to use them effectively. As the FAA defers more and more maintenance, the more likely it is that something will fail and controllers will be forced into a situation where they will have to revert to flight progress strips and non-radar.

To sum it all up simply, the FAA has no viable backup plan. Without extensive training (something that is virtually impossible to do when your ATC system is already understaffed), the controller workforce will become less and less capable of handling a serious equipment outage (radar site, URET , radar scope, telecommunications or computer). Without an adequate number of technicians, a serious equipment outage becomes more and more likely.

The only semi-irrational plan I can think of -- that the FAA might use -- is the extensive use of “ATC Zero.” “ATC Zero” is where an air traffic control facility determines it can no longer provide ATC service and closes. It then transfers its airspace to another control facility. It is an unbelievably complex and completely flawed process that hasn’t worked well yet. The first 10 minutes of the event are usually unrestrained chaos. You can read about one instance (and see an enlightening picture) here.

These facts are well known inside the controller community. Ask any controller anywhere if they’ve ever witnessed “ATC zero” in action and even the ones that haven’t will roll their eyes. It’s the ATC version of a “Hail Mary” pass in football. Back in the days when the FAA at least tried to excel, the system was designed to “fail gracefully.” Now it’s just designed to fail.

Don Brown
May 14, 2008

Internet Insight

The power of the internet continues to amaze me. As I said yesterday, I see an interesting map displayed, in a floor speech from the Senate, and it only takes about five minutes to find the map on the internet. When I think about days gone by, traveling to the library to do some research and having to order materials from other libraries...well, it’s amazing.

Today’s post is much the same. Last month I mentioned an article in The Atlantic written by James Fallows. The article is about the use of Very Light Jets (VLJs) as air taxis and focuses on a company called DayJet. I was surprised that air traffic control wasn’t mentioned in the article and in his blog today, Mr. Fallows mentioned (as I have on several occasions) that only so much fits into one article. The part about DayJet’s interaction with ATC had been edited out for space limitations.

Also in his blog today, Mr. Fallows provides more insight into the subject from others, including John Schubert. In the piece, Mr. Shubert says,

”They (the airlines) have shamelessly and dishonestly blamed general aviation for their own scheduling delays. They even filmed a commercial which showed a bunch of fat cats in a private jet getting priority over an airliner. “

In case you don’t remember those commercials (I do) you can find them here. I believe the Air Transport Association (the industry’s lobby group) understands the power of the internet all too well. And unlike the citizens, they have millions of dollars to exploit that power -- year after year after year.

Don Brown
May 14, 2008

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Who Has the Oil ?

While watching C-SPAN yesterday, this map caught my attention.

I thought it might catch yours.

(Click on the image to enlarge. Sorry the resolution isn’t any better.)

Don Brown
May 13, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- May 13

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

”May 13, 1946: President Truman signed the Federal Airport Act establishing the Federal-aid airport program (FAAP), the first peacetime program of financial aid aimed exclusively at promoting development of the nation's civil airports. Sen. Pat McCarran (D-Nev.) and Rep. Clarence F. Lea (D-Calif.) had introduced the legislation. The Act authorized appropriations of $500 million for the contiguous United States and $20 million for Alaska and Hawaii over a period of seven years, beginning Jul 1, 1946. Federal allotments were to be matched by local funds. For fiscal year 1947, Congress appropriated $45 million for construction and nearly $3 million for preliminary planning and surveys. (See Appednix VIII and Oct 8, 1946.)”

Over 60 years later, I have to wonder just how far our leaders could see into the future back then. Was the path clear to them ? Or was it just as foggy back then as it seems today -- but they acted anyway ?

The Las Vegas airport is named for Senator McCarran. I wonder what Las Vegas would be like without an airport ?

Don Brown
May 13, 2008

Monday, May 12, 2008

See Bob Run

Make no mistake about it, when it comes to having the flick on Presidential politics -- I don’t. Still, I was tickled pink to read this:

Barr announces Libertarian presidential bid

In my little corner of the world -- a “red” county, in a “red” state -- I’ve seen more “Vote Ron Paul” signs than “Vote John McCain” signs. During the last election, I feel certain that my pick-up truck was the only one in the county with a Kerry/Edwards sticker on it. My wife wouldn’t put one on her car -- she’s scared of the rednecks. In that I are one -- I ain’t. My wife knows that they’re mostly church-going, God-fearing people but she saw Deliverance and took it to heart. I keep telling her that the movie was typical over-the-top Hollywood stereotyping -- and besides -- the bad guys were hillbillies instead of rednecks. The distinction seems to be lost on her.

Speaking of churches, that is where many of them get their political views. It’s nothing new. I find it odd that my wife believes the boogey man lurks down every lonely dirt road but fails to appreciate the political power of the churches on the corner of virtually every main street down here. But like we say, she ain’t from ‘round here.

Between listening to their preachers and Neal Boortz on WSB, a run for President by Bob Barr will definitely keep life entertaining down here. And here I was, worried that Texas was going to surpass Georgia in the number of wacky political figures we can offer to the nation. Good Lord I miss Molly Ivins.

Don Brown
May 12, 2008

Saturday, May 10, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- May 11

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

”May 11, 1996: A ValuJet DC-9 crashed into the Everglades shortly after takeoff from Miami, killing all 110 persons aboard. The crew’s loss of control was due to an intense fire caused by activation of one or more oxygen generators carried in the forward cargo compartment. In a report released in Aug 1997, the National Transportation Safety Board found the accident’s probable cause to be: the failure of SabreTech, a Valujet contractor, to properly handle and identify the chemical oxygen generators before presenting them to the airline for carriage; Valujet’s failure to properly oversee its contract maintenance program; and FAA’s failure to require smoke detection and fire suppression systems in cargo compartments of the type (Class D) in which the fire had started.

On the day after the crash, FAA announced an expansion of its ongoing review of Valujet (see Feb 20, 1996). On May 23, DOT’s Research and Special Projects Administration issued an immediate temporary ban on the the transportation of chemical oxygen generators as cargo on passenger airlines. (See Jun 17 and Dec 30, 1996.) ”

As I mentioned in a previous post, Valujet was the poster child for airline deregulation and the cost to safety. Below is a sample of the most serious safety lapses, in time sequence. The cites with links are from the NTSB. The cites in italics are from the FAA Historical Chronology.

June 8, 1995 -- Valujet 597 -- An engine explodes, pieces pierce the fuselage and start a fire on the runway in Atlanta, GA

December 12, 1995 -- Valujet Flight 224 -- Another engine disintegrates after takeoff but it is contained in the engine housing.

January 7, 1996 -- ValuJet Flight 558 -- Landed short of the runway at Nashville, TN after the crew reset circuit breakers they had disabled earlier and the spoilers deployed prematurely while the aircraft was on final.

February 1, 1996 -- Valujet Flight -- The right main landing gear collapses on landing at Nashville, TN.

”Feb 20, 1996: FAA began a 120-day special emphasis safety review of ValuJet Airlines, an innovative low-cost carrier that had grown rapidly since its certification on Oct 21, 1993. Factors prompting the review included a series of incidents and nonfatal accidents. (See May 11, 1996.) “

May 11, 1996 -- Valujet Flight 592 -- After an in-flight fire, the aircraft crashed into the Everglades killing 110 people.

”Jun 17, 1996: FAA announced that ValuJet Airlines would cease operations, as of midnight on the same day, pending safety improvements required under a consent decree (see Aug 29, 1996). The agency based its action on an intensified inspection of the carrier undertaken since the recent crash (see May 11, 1996). FAA stated that this heightened scrutiny had revealed serious safety deficiences in the areas of airworthiness, maintenance, quality assurance of contractors, and engineering capability. The announcement sparked renewed criticism of DOT and FAA because it appeared to contrast with statements, made following the accident, assuring the public that the airline was safe. The next day, Secretary of Transportation Peña and Administrator Hinson described steps to improve safety oversight and address public concerns. Peña stated that he would urge Congress to make safety FAA’s single primary mission (see Sep 30, 1996). Hinson outlined improvements to FAA’s examination of airlines, such as ValuJet, that relied heavily on contractors for maintenance and training. He stated that Deputy Administrator Daschle would lead a review of pertinent regulatory issues (see Sep 16, 1996). Hinson also announced the retirement of Anthony J. Broderick, Associate Administrator for Regulation and Certification. (See Jul 15 and Nov 14, 1996.)“

This list is by no means exhaustive. I didn’t list all the incidents in the NTSB’s database. If you’re interested (and have a lot of time) go to the database, fix the “date range” to something appropriate (starting in 1990 will do), scroll down to “Enter your word string below” and type in Valujet. The story it will tell is bad enough but it still isn’t the whole story. According to the Wikipedia entry on Valujet,

“ValuJet planes made fifteen emergency landings in 1994, fifty-seven in 1995, and fifty-seven from January through May of 1996.“

The airline only had 56 airplanes at its peak.

One of my readers gently chastised me for giving the impression that Valujet actually went out of business in my previous post. Guilty as charged.

”Aug 29, 1996 FAA returned ValuJet’s operating certificate to the airline, stating that the carrier had completed the safety improvements outlined in the consent order that grounded it (see Jun 17, 1996). The action cleared ValuJet to renew operations, subject to a DOT fitness ruling subsequently granted on Sep 26. The airline resumed flying on Sep 30. FAA imposed a limit of 15 aircraft, subject to review, in contrast to the 51 aircraft that the carrier had operated before its grounding. “

Again, that isn’t the whole story. From Wikipedia:

”After the large amount of negative publicity surrounding the Flight 592 incident, ValuJet suffered serious financial problems. On July 11, 1997, ValuJet announced it would merge with the much smaller Airways Corporation, parent of AirTran Airways. The merged company would retain the AirTran name, although ValuJet was the senior partner and nominal survivor of the merger. In November 1997, the company announced it would move its headquarters from Atlanta to Orlando. On November 17, 1997, AirWays Corp. and ValuJet completed their merger, and the ValuJet name passed into aviation history. “

More information can be found under Wikipedia’s AirTran Airways entry:

”In July 1997, AirWays Corporation announced a merger with ValuJet Airlines. In one of the U.S. airline industry's first reverse mergers, ValuJet was re-named AirTran Airways in 1997. This was done because the firm's public image never recovered from the crash of ValuJet Flight 592. On September 24, 1997 the parent company became AirTran Holdings Inc, and operations under new management began on September 1, 1998. “

(Emphasis added)

If you’ll conduct the same search of the NTSB’s database that I detailed above on AirTran, you’ll find less entries than you found on Valujet -- despite the fact that AirTran has been in business longer and has a fleet well over twice the size Valujet ever had. In addition, if you dig deep enough, you’ll notice that 4 out of the 7 incidents found for AirTran lead you back to Valujet.

If you take enough time to research the whole sordid mess that is deregulation, you will find people and machines taken out of a stable, profitable airline industry and thrown into deregulation’s race to the bottom of the barrel. Literally tens of thousands of good-paying jobs were lost, pensions tossed aside for the government to pick up (if you were lucky) and lives ruined (if you were “lucky”) or snuffed out (if you weren’t).

And for what ? A cheap ticket so you can be stuffed into a torturous seat on yet-another-delayed flight ? An initial public offering on stock for an airline that won’t even be in business for 5 years ? Another golden parachute for an endless list of CEOs at bankrupt airlines ?

It is insane. Almost insane as a government agency that can’t keep pace in this race to the bottom. Valujet grew faster than the FAA could inspect them. The FAA couldn’t adapt fast enough to regulate Valujet’s contractor SabreTech. If that makes you worry that the FAA can’t adapt fast enough to oversee the proliferation of airlines using foreign repair stations -- then good !

While you’re thinking about it, see if you can come up with a good reason that we’re even running in this race. I -- for one -- can’t.

Don Brown
May 10, 2008

Making Sausage (or Hurricanes)

”People who love sausage and respect the law should never watch either of them being made. “

Author Unknown

I assume most of you know that Congress is currently trying to grind out a bill to reauthorize the FAA. Under current law, this happens every five years and it presents lawmakers with an opportunity to tweak how the FAA runs. Among the many changes being sought by various entities this year, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association is trying to fix the language that allowed the Bush Administration to impose a “contract” on air traffic controllers.

The bill in the House is done. It’s been done for several months. The House is waiting on the Senate to pass its version of the bill so the separate bills can go to conference to have the differences worked out. And then there is President Bush. Sooner or later he has to sign something -- or not. He is trying to influence the bill already -- threatening to veto it if it contains this or that.

It’s a long, drawn-out, confusing process that has driven many people around the bend. And controllers (in general) don’t have that far to go. I’ve always thought that this is one of the greatest sources of angst for controllers. Their job requires decisive action within seconds. Their employer deals in ambiguous trends that play out over years.

Controllers aren’t the only ones that have issues they want addressed in this bill (S1300 in the Senate, HR 2881 in the House.) Anybody that has anything to do with aviation wants something. Which means everybody.

In short, the controllers want a third party involved (mediation and/or binding arbitration) if contract talks break down. During the last contract, the Administration drove the contract talks to impasse and then just imposed their rules on the controller workforce -- cutting entry pay 30% and virtually freezing the pay of senior controllers. That of course has given us the current situation where controllers are quitting in record numbers. The FAA “won” the battle and is now busy losing the war. It’s a funny thing about being the boss. You feel all powerful when you’re bossing everyone around. But when there’s no one left to boss around and do the work, you feel (and look) kind of stupid.

I’m not paying real close attention to all the maneuvers but I think they can be summed up in three views. The House bill would reopen the contract negotiations between the FAA and NATCA. President Bush has (of course) threatened to veto that. The moderate Republicans don’t want negotiations reopened but are willing to allow binding arbitration for the next contract. The right-wing Republicans like things just the way they are.

Me ? Well, I voted with my feet. I retired. Every single day the Congress delays addressing this issue costs the system more controllers. Soon, when no one is left to do the work, somebody is going to look (and feel) pretty stupid.

The FAA has already had to reinstate the housing allowance they used to pay trainees at its academy in Oklahoma City. They couldn’t attract enough people to fill the jobs. Because controllers are retiring faster than the FAA projected, they still can’t hire people fast enough and are now offering bonuses for senior controllers to stay. That doesn’t seem to be working either. Just as an example, here’s an interesting story about two controllers retiring and going to work in Dubai.

If that isn’t strange enough for you (would you pick Dubai over Tampa ?) I have a friend from Tampa that just retired too. We’ve known each other since attending the FAA academy together in 1981. His boss wouldn’t let him go to lunch despite having plenty of people on the shift. When my friend offered to take vacation time to go to lunch, the boss approved. During lunch, my friend decided he’d had enough of the foolishness. He ordered a drink, called up his boss and said, “I retire.” Well, I’m pretty sure he said something I’m not going to print but he retired all the same.

Congratulations America. We’ve managed to turn a great career into a Jimmy Buffet song.

” I ain't had a day off now in over a year
My Jamaican vacation's gonna start right here
Get the phones for me
You can tell 'em I just sailed away “

(written by Jim "Moose" Brown and Don Rollins)

You might want to call your Senators and tell them to hurry up. It’s five o’clock somewhere.

Don Brown
May 10, 2008

Friday, May 09, 2008

Different View -- Same Conclusion

Read this view of America’ air transportation industry from the British Broadcasting Corporation.

The 'creaking' US airline industry

”Like much of America these days, the airline industry feels tired, worn down, and old.

That is surprising in a country that often likes to think of itself as the best.

Arguably, it once was, but the airline industry - like the health system, like schools, roads - you name it, feels like it is just creaking along and leaving its passengers ever more frustrated. “

The truth hurts doesn’t it ?

Don Brown
May 9, 2008

Thursday, May 08, 2008

One More Time at the NYTimes

Matthew Wald has another article in The New York Times today.

A Long List of Big Issues for F.A.A.

A word of caution while we’re here. It is indeed a long list but Mr. Wald doesn’t get much space to discuss it. I -- on the other hand -- can use all the space I want. Or as much as I can get you to read anyway.

Mr. Wald starts out with four questions. I’ve got answers. Well, at least opinions.

”How should it rebuild its air traffic control system and its controller work force, both of which are aging and stressed? “

Building both at the same time will be virtually impossible for an organization that hasn’t done either one correctly -- much less planned so poorly that both need to be done at the same time. Again, this retirement surge was predictable. Not only did the FAA fail to effectively plan for it, they exacerbated the problem with their Imposed Work Rules. Again, it demonstrates an unbelievable level of incompetence on the part of the Bush Administration.

The technology we have works and the technology proposed is considered “high risk.” The FAA should bite the bullet, stabilize the system with the existing technology and concentrate on rebuilding its workforce. It should do so by following the model it used after the PATCO strike in 1981. Scrap the current training system, screen the masses at its academy in Oklahoma City ruthlessly and give the facilities trainees that have a good chance of becoming controllers.

Failure to make the hard decisions now will not make the situation any better. Better technology won’t help if there is no one to use it. It’s an ugly decision to make but it is really a no-brainer.

”How should it set fees for airlines and others using the air traffic system? “

It’s the wrong question. Forget “fees” and start thinking taxes. Fees are for privatization. The FAA is about one disaster away from having to limit access to the National Airspace System. “Fees” would just make that decision even harder by making it costlier.

”How should it ration scarce landing slots at New York area airports to prevent national gridlock? “

It’s simple. Follow the existing law. We’ve already wasted untold amounts of time wringing our hands over the situation only to have implemented the slot restrictions anyway. Get over it. Airports have a finite capacity. Move on.

”And who should run the agency, which has had no permanent administrator since September?“

Somebody that can swing an ax. If anyone thinks that the FAA’s failure is due solely to an Administrator, or lack thereof, they aren’t paying attention. Remember, the current wave of air traffic controller retirements has been inevitable and noticeable since 1981. The failed response to that predictable problem goes far beyond any one Administrator.

When you read the article, take a moment to dwell on this statement from James Burnley, former Secretary of the DOT.

”One way to pay for the system, he said, would be with bonds repaid with air traffic control fees.“

In one of the very first posts I ever made on this blog, I mentioned Robert Caro’s book The Power Broker. If you have read that book, I’m sure you’ve already made the connection. If you haven’t -- one of the great sources of power for Robert Moses was the ability of his public authorities to issue bonds. Those bonds allowed Moses to build bridges that generated tolls that allowed him to sell even more bonds. The catch was in paying off the bonds. If you paid off the bonds, the rationale for the tolls went away. So, within a few years of the bonds maturity, he’d reissue the bonds. The tolls -- and Robert Moses’ power -- stayed in place for years and years.

It’s a fascinating story. One that is well worth knowing before you let somebody put a toll booth on an airspace system that you’ve already paid for. One that you -- the citizens -- already own.

Don Brown
May 8, 2008

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Watching the Watcher

Hindsight is 20-20 they say. I knew I should have said something about Scott Bloch when I checked him out. It just confirms my ever-growing faith in Wikipedia as a source. I guess I need to clue y’all in don’t I ?

All right, just off the front page today, you see this story.

F.B.I. Raids Office of Special Counsel

”The raid on the downtown Washington headquarters of the agency, the Office of Special Counsel, and another at the home of its director, Scott J. Bloch, followed accusations that Mr. Bloch had destroyed evidence on government computers that might demonstrate wrongdoing.“

As some of you might remember, Mr. Bloch’s name was prominent in the coverage about air traffic control reporting errors at DFW.

FAA Accused Of Hiding Controllers' Mistakes

”U.S. Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch, who investigates complaints made by government whistle-blowers, alleges that the FAA and its air traffic controllers have been reclassifying mistakes for at least a year in a widespread effort to reduce criticism from bosses and to help boost performance bonuses, which are based partly on error data.“

When his name first popped up (it was earlier than the DFW story) I went to check him out at Wikipedia.

”Bloch's first major actions as head of the office were to choose as deputy a lawyer who had publicly taken a position against the "homosexual agenda", and to hire young lawyers from Ave Maria School of Law, the Catholic school founded by Domino's Pizza billionaire Tom Monaghan. In February 2004, Bloch ordered all mention of sexual orientation workplace nondiscrimination be removed from OSC's website and printed materials. Bloch stated his office lacked the authority to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.“

I knew something wasn’t right. You see this over and over again in the Bush Administration’s appointees -- some type of connection to recently-founded religious colleges. Take Kay Coles James for instance. She was Director for the Office of Personnel Management. Before that, she was dean of Regent University’s government school. Regent University was founded by Pat Robertson.

I hate to say it but Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy has influenced me more than any other book I’ve read recently. One of my Republican friends had given me a copy of his previous book -- American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush as something of a joke. I thought it went a little too far and that Mr. Phillips might have something of a blind spot when it came to the Bush family. However, as events unfold, I keep seeing the central themes of American Theocracy come up again and again. The full title of the book sums it up, very well indeed.

American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century

Don Brown
May 7, 2008