Saturday, August 30, 2008

NADIN -- Aftermath

All is quiet again the in FAA’s world. It sits awaiting its next embarrassment. As an ex-air traffic controller, I find the reaction to last week’s incident quite interesting. There are far more dangerous incidents that happen on a far-more-regular basis. They just don’t cause as many delays. Funny -- what gets people’s attention.

The Associated Press has the best summation I’ve found. It really doesn’t tell you much about what happened (you aren’t going to learn about that anyway) so much as it shows the predictability of the positions various entities take.

The Press still compares apples to engine blocks;

”Redundancy is so critical for power and water utilities that they can be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars a day...“

The ATA stays “on message” no matter what the issue or whether it is related to the event;

”Basil Barimo, vice president of operations and safety for the Air Transport Association of America, a trade association that represents the nation's largest carriers, says the fundamental problem is that the FAA still relies on outdated technology, including a radar-based control system designed in the 1940s and '50s. “

The FAA, when confronted with the problems of today, talks about the brighter future in the hazy distance;

”"We should see significant improvements by the end of September ... which should prevent the type of problem we had on Tuesday," said FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown. The agency also is considering adding a third backup site for that and other systems at a technology center in New Jersey, but no final decisions have been made, she added.“

And my friend, Doug Church of NATCA, keeps telling the truth -- as every news organization puts the FAA-inspired asterisk by his statements -- hoping that the general public will recognize it when they see it;

”However, Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association — a union that has been locked in a contract dispute with the FAA since 2006 — argues that the agency has tried to focus on future technology to deflect its lack of diligence in maintaining its current systems. “

Interestingly, the rest of the article goes on to agree with Doug Church’s statement. It even finds several experts (even if they’re engine-block experts) that agree with his statement. Yet, still, we must discount Doug’s statements because he represents “ a union that has been locked in a contract dispute with the FAA since 2006“. (BTW, it’s Labor Day weekend 2008 -- two years since the FAA made this “contract dispute” permanent.)

If you speak “geek” you might be interested in this article.

Corrupt File Brought Down FAA's Antiquated IT System

”"What happened yesterday at 1:25 p.m. [EDT] was that during a normal daily software load something was corrupted in a file, and that brought [the] system down in Atlanta," FAA spokesperson Paul Takemoto told me. “

I don’t speak the language. I just wonder why anyone is messing around with the computer at 1:25 in the afternoon.

In case you missed it, there’s a second page in that article.

"If you look at the root causes of most network outages, north of 70 percent of them are caused by configuration errors by humans," Van Zant told me. "Computers fail a whole lot less often than the humans punching things into computers fail. Network engineers, as smart as they are, are not immune from that."

I got to speak to a controller friend about it all. He didn’t know what really happened either. He was too busy working with a brand-new trainee when it happened. Thunderstorms everywhere, one of the Towers had to abandon ship because of a tornado warning and too many flight plans to correct -- put in incorrectly by that contracted-out Flight Service system we warned you about. Just another day in the life of an air traffic controller.

Despite all that he seemed pretty happy. I guess that’s because he was inviting me to his retirement party.

An inexperienced and demoralized workforce, a “fix-on-fail” maintenance policy, vital functions contracted out, a problem-plagued data communications system without the needed redundancy -- NADIN doesn’t really rank up there as a major problem. Things could be worse. A lot worse. And they will be. Very soon.

Don Brown
August 31, 2008

This Weekend’s Amusement

I’ve thought of about a dozen different ways to present this video. I thought about the Olympic angle -- they’re headed for London and I could present this as a new event. I’ve thought about working in the British Empire angle -- they’re not all tea, umbrellas and crumpets.

But in the end, I just think this video is entertaining, bizarre and impressive enough to share with you. And it has absolutely nothing to do with aviation or air traffic control.

Royal Navy Field Gun Competition 1994


Don Brown
August 30, 2008

Friday, August 29, 2008

A Glimpse of the Future

If you have a high-speed internet connection, you need to look at this picture of last night’s rally at the Democratic National Convention

New York Times Panoramic

I tried to research the size of record crowds at political events but I gave up. No matter what search terms I used, I kept coming up with one name over and over again:

Don Brown
August 29, 2008

Thursday, August 28, 2008

More On McCain

As promised, I spent some more time searching through Senator McCain’s record on aviation. I haven’t bothered searching through his voting record -- vote by vote. I’ve been looking to get a sense of the man --what he believes in when it comes to aviation. It still isn’t easy.

The one defining moment on what seems to be the top issue doesn’t bode well for the Senator. He got into a spat with AOPA’s out-going president -- Phil Boyer -- over user fees

The Chairman(Senator McCain).

If you believe that, Mr. Boyer, I strongly question your qualifications to serve on this Committee.

I’m going to save myself a lot of trouble and give you one link to the document that gave me the most information.





JOHN McCAIN, Arizona, Chairman

Senator McCain was pressing the issue of user fees for corporate jets. Mr. Boyer, recognizing how Washington works, alerted his members that Senator McCain was in favor of user fees -- without mentioning the corporate-jet part. AOPA has over 400,000 members -- members that have a lot of influence. They’re all educated and make enough money to afford flying a private airplane -- if not owning one outright. They know how to make the phones ring on Capital Hill. Evidently they did.

Chairman McCain was feeling the heat and he knew where the heat was coming from. He accused Mr. Boyer of misrepresenting his position.

The Chairman(Senator McCain).

So Mr. Boyer, when I advocated such a payment of that by corporate jets, your organization immediately alerted every aircraft owner in America alleging that I was going to levy some tax on them. It was unfair, it was inaccurate, and it is sort of the classic example of the way lobbyists in this town will distort their position and frighten their members, because that was clearly not what I wanted to do.

This is a very enlightening exchange. Chairman McCain was obviously upset. He says he’s upset about Mr. Boyer “distorting” his position but is it true ? Mr. Boyer knows that once the user-fee genie gets out of the bottle it will be hard to put back in. Chairman McCain knows this too so his bill started with the most promising target (corporate jets) knowing that it would probably be extended to the rest of General Aviation at a later date. Senator McCain can say he didn’t know that, but I don’t think anyone believes the Senator is naive. Besides, he showed his hand with this statement...

”I wanted to get at, which we should get at, the wealthiest people in America who are flying corporate jets around this country and not paying an extra penny for doing so, while average citizens, average middle income, lower income American citizens are paying, again, an increase in their cost of air tickets, while your fat cat friends pay nothing. “

...and I’ve got the cartoon to prove it. For those that don’t remember, I posted that cartoon some time ago in ”Fair Is Fair”. Please note the time frame. This hearing was in the year 2000. The cartoon is from 2007. Senator McCain was singing the ATA’s tune long before the ‘toon came out.

As I said, the hearing transcript provides a wealth of information. I’m not sure if you can appreciate the irony of it all. It’s a hearing about the nominees for the Federal Aviation Management Advisory Council. I’m assuming most of you don’t know of anything it's done even if you might vaguely remember hearing of it at one time. It was a committee mandated by the Bill we talked about the other day -- AIR-21. A Bill which Senator McCain co-wrote, by the way. As far as I can tell, the “Council” never did much of anything. President Clinton didn't even send any nominations to the council for three years -- and when he did, he didn’t send a nomination for Federal employee’s union slot on the committee. It’s just as well. Because I couldn’t figure out how they would have answered this (loaded) question from Senator McCain’s committee:

Question. Many observers agree that labor is the biggest cost driver at the FAA. Negotiations are underway with the FAA and a few of its employees' unions. Given your professional experience, how would you advise the Administrator to take a hard line, financially speaking, in these negotiations?

Or this one:

Question. There have been many calls for privatizing FAA's air traffic control services and other countries, including NAVCANADA, have privatized. Such steps are controversial and should not be taken without considerable debate. However, given FAA's rising operations costs, what are your views on contracting out some FAA operations such as control towers. Oceanic services, or maintenance activities?

Are you getting The Flick ?

Don Brown
August 28, 2006

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

More of The Same Down Under

The Australians are going through their own trials and tribulations with their National Airspace System. And once again, it looks much too much like our problems. I know I have a small audience of readers from Australia. While I wouldn’t presume to tell them how to run their airspace (or their country) I hope that my comments might prove useful.

Two stories from The Australian caught my eye. The first is about an operational error -- also know as a proximity event, a “deal” and several other names. In short, two airplanes got too close to each other.

”On such occasions, controllers say the accepted practice is for those controllers involved to be stood down so they can calm their nerves and for the incident to be investigated.

"In normal circumstances, the system says you stand the controllers down because safety is paramount," said the controller.“

As usual, the controllers are correct. You never know how one of these incidents will hit you (as a controller.) Sometimes it doesn’t bother you -- sometimes it bothers you a lot. It’s possible you could keep working without any trouble. A good supervisor will make sure you’re all right. He won’t just take your word for it -- he’ll make sure you’re okay to continue to work. Like so many things, it requires good judgment on the supervisor’s part and you don’t want that judgment tainted by staffing shortages. Which is exactly what happened, of course.

”"But the line manager asked them to continue apparently because they were already one man short on that shift and they would have lost another two, which would mean severe restrictions on air traffic out of Sydney. “

And then Airservices Australia (the company that runs the ATC system) sealed their fate with this moronic remark;

Airservices denied it had acted unsafely, saying that it was appropriate for the controllers to continue on duty because they were not at fault in the incident.

It doesn’t matter who was at fault. Think about when you’re driving. When you narrowly avoid an accident -- a Mac truck misses you by inches -- does that adrenaline sickness (you know, the rush followed by your stomach turning and your hands shaking) depend on whether you were at fault or the truck driver was at fault ? Of course not. It’s the same in air traffic control when an accident is narrowly averted. Whose fault it was doesn’t enter into your immediate reaction to it.

The second story involves a problem dealt with long ago in the United States -- the inherent conflict between Civilian ATC and Military ATC.

”Defence has backed away from any rapid implementation of the plan to create a unified national system, declaring it wants to move only at "a measured pace, cognisant of the requirements to maintain Defence capability". “

This is a big issue that is not to be taken lightly. I sincerely hope the Australians are able to reach an agreement with less pain than we did -- here in the States. It’s an ugly story.

Don Brown
August 27, 2008

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

News Flash -- NADIN Out

The National Airspace Data Exchange Network (NADIN) is experiencing a problem. It is the computer network that transmits all the flight plan data in the U.S. In short, everybody’s flight plan is gone.

The system can continue to operate but at very, very reduced capacity.

Background information:

NADIN History at Get the Flick

Here’s a story about what happened the last time NADIN went out so you’ll have some idea what to expect.

Here’s some technical info from the FAA:

The NADIN PSN ”is tentatively planned for decommissioning in the 2011 time-frame. The FTI Program Office is working with the NADIN PSN user community to facilitate the migration of end user systems from NADIN PSN X.25 services to FTI IP services.”

As any of my readers know, anytime you see the initials “FTI” -- watch out.

I’ll write more when the details start coming out.

Don Brown
August 26, 2008

Thanks Rob

If you’ll remember, in Oshkosh Posh I asked my readers to stand up at AirVenture in OSH and question the powers that be about resolving the conflict between the air traffic controllers and the FAA. I’m happy to report that at least one person did -- Rob Marks of JetWhine.

He even wrote a story about it.

Controllers Work Less Air Traffic Now Than in 2000

”As a man, Bobby may well be a great guy, the kind you’d want to have a beer with. And I can tell you that anyone who can ka-thunk a fighter plane down on a moving aircraft carrier at night in bad weather has my respect … as an aviator. But in my experience, pilots make lousy leaders. And as an administrator, Sturgell’s hasn’t altered my opinion on this. “

If you’ll take the time to read the story, you’ll see that the title is the answer Rob was given. I don’t think Rob liked the answer any better than I did. Regardless, I appreciate that he asked, whether I influenced him or not.

Thanks Rob.

Don Brown
August 26, 2008

Monday, August 25, 2008

AIR-21 and Slots

AIR-21 is formally known as the "Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century". If you’re a lawyer, have infinite patience and an unlimited amount of time -- you can read the whole thing for yourself: Public Law 106-181. Otherwise, don’t bother.

Thanks to the modern miracle of computer technology, you can skim through it looking for little gems of information. For instance, if you search for the word “delays”, sooner or later you’ll come across this:

”Sec. 41718. Special rules for Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport

``(a) Beyond-Perimeter Exemptions.--The Secretary shall grant, by order, 12 exemptions from the application of sections 49104(a)(5), 49109, 49111(e), and 41714 of this title to air carriers to operate limited frequencies and aircraft on select routes between Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and domestic hub airports and exemptions from the requirements of subparts K and S of part 93, Code of Federal Regulations, if the Secretary finds that the exemptions will--

(1) provide air transportation with domestic network benefits in areas beyond the perimeter described in that section;

(2) increase competition by new entrant air carriers or in multiple markets;

(3) not reduce travel options for communities served by small hub airports and medium hub airports within the perimeter described in section 49109; and

(4)not result in meaningfully increased travel delays.

(Emphasis added)

I’ve tried to make the point before (several times) that Washington National is a “special” airport. At least in the eyes of Congress. You won’t find that language attached to any other airport in the bill.

The message is simple -- if you want the airplanes at your airport to run on time you have to limit the number of aircraft using the airport. You have to implement slot controls.

But for most Americans, being on time isn’t nearly as important as saving money. They’ll gladly trade a little time to save money. If they think that they can save money they’ll (unknowingly) trade away things a lot more valuable than their time. Their jobs, their towns, their kid’s future. But that’s another subject. Let’s see if we can figure out whether having slots costs the consumer money.

For the sake of argument, I’ll concede that deregulation has led to lower ticket prices (although it isn’t necessarily so .) But when you add up the costs, it hasn’t saved anybody any money.

”(f ) Grants for Reliever Airports.--Section 47117(e)(1) is amended by adding at the end the following:

(v) been designated by the Secretary as a reliever airport to an airport with 20,000 hours of annual delays in commercial passenger aircraft takeoffs and landings.''. “

I’m guessing that the threshold of “20,000 hours of annual delays” is some lawyers way of designating funds for a specific airport (or airports) without shouting from the rooftops that Senator Slick got some Federal money for his airport. Again, that’s a different story so let’s just concentrate on the number. Some airport -- somewhere -- has 20,000 hours a year in delays. Remembering my blog entry from a few days ago, some smart guy estimates that delays cost consumers $100 bucks a minute.

$100 x 60 minutes = $6,000 per hour x 20,000 hours = $120,000,000

That’s $120 million a year for one airport in 1996 dollars (when the story was written) and you don’t even want to think about how poorly the FAA counts delays. And that’s all before you factor in the salary cuts airline employees have suffered, the jobs lost, the pensions stolen and a dozen other ugly factors we could tie in.

For the crowd that believes it is more important that a business makes money than generate good jobs -- how is that working out ? According to The New York Times the airline industry lost $30 billion dollars between 2001 and 2006. We’ve got the worst of both worlds. Try this from a GAO report in 2005 (a .pdf file.)

”While bankruptcy may not harm the financial health of the airline industry, it has become a considerable concern for the federal government and airline employees and retirees because of the recent terminations of pensions by US Airways and United Airlines. These terminations resulted in claims on PBGC’s single –employer program of $9.6 billion and plan participants (i.e., employees, retirees, and beneficiaries) are estimated to have lost more than $5 billion in benefits that were either not covered by PBGC or exceeded the statutory limits. “

Did anybody factor that into the price of a “cheap” airline ticket ?

Let people keep convincing you that our aviation industry is so much better off now than before deregulation. Keep telling yourself how cheap it is. Let everybody convince you that we can increase capacity in the National Airspace System if we just wait long enough and wish hard enough. Keep telling yourself that slot controls won’t work.

Don Brown
August 25, 2008

Count No Evil

I’m still working on today’s blog. In the mean time, go over to Jurassic Bark to get the flick on the FAA’s latest hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil policy. Changing the way they count wasn’t working so they’ll just quit counting.

Poof ! No more errors.

By the way, the last time I got to talk to a group of controllers ? I overheard a conversation about eight trainees that recently completed their training. Seven of them had already had operational errors.

Don Brown
August 25, 2008

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Teasing the Truth

This is going to be tougher than I thought. I’ve spent most of the morning searching out John McCain’s positions on aviation and air traffic control. In that he was Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, you would think that would be relatively simple. Not so. For a morning’s work, this is all I have to show (so far.)

”As noted by Senator John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, in his remarks supporting certain provisions in Air 21, numerous respected studies have shown that "slots and perimeter rules are anticompetitive, unfair, unneeded, and harmful to consumers." “

And as I believe is obvious, that is a second-hand quote by someone trying to bolster their case.

There’s no doubt that slots are “anticompetitive” and “unfair”. There is also no doubt that they are not “unneeded” and “harmful to consumers”. Slots are specifically designed to control competition. It would be more accurate to say that they are designed to control the destructive forces of competition. Without them, everyone gets to schedule a flight to an airport with limited capacity. It creates gridlock and every airline gets to go broke -- “fair” and square. It takes what should be the most profitable destinations (like New York) and turns them into bloodbaths.

As soon as we implement any type of regulation to control this destructive competition we’re being “unfair” to somebody. Even if we used the Bush Administration’s plan to hold auctions to regulate the number of slots at an airport, it would be “unfair” to somebody. And while we’re talking “unfair”, I might as well address what is “harmful to consumers”. Which is more harmful ? Higher ticket prices or gridlock ? Which costs the economy more ? Higher ticket prices or delays that cost consumers $100 a minute ?

You may have noticed Senator McCain’s mention of the “perimeter rule.” If you don’t know what that is, you can read an excellent summation of the perimeter rule at The Cranky Flier. Having said that, I don’t necessarily agree with TCF’s conclusion that the perimeter rule in no longer needed or the Senator’s assertion that the rule is unfair. George Bush (the 1st) may have managed to get Houston inside the perimeter, John McCain may have gotten Phoenix inside -- but what about Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and even Anchorage ? Is it “fair” to them ? What about all the other cities that are excluded ?

It’s not a matter of fair or unfair. It’s a matter of making the best decisions we can and implementing policies that serve the national interests. Somebody has to make these decisions. To me, the obvious entity that should be making the decisions is the body we control and elect to make the tough choices -- the government. Strive to be fair ? Certainly. Having a functional National Airspace System is the goal.

As to Senator McCain’s record on aviation ? I’ll try to tease the truth out and let you know as I find it.

Don Brown
August 24, 2008

Saturday, August 23, 2008

FAA History Lesson --August 23 (08)

You are forgiven if you didn’t realize that the FAA is 50 years old today. Despite it being a Saturday, I didn’t find a single story on it while browsing the internet. I know there are some out there -- somewhere -- but you have to really search to find them.

It’s all too easy to point out the FAA’s failures -- especially in the last few years. It’s a shame, in that in days gone by, the FAA has had some wonderful successes. The scale of our aviation system is still the envy of the world. There is nothing like our General Aviation industry -- anywhere. There’s nothing remotely close.

It’s all too depressing to recount now. Here’s to better days in the future. And here’s to the people that -- once-upon-a-time -- made the FAA work so well.

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

”Aug 23, 1958: President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 (P.L. 85-726) into law. Treating comprehensively the Federal role in fostering and regulating civil aeronautics and air commerce, the new statute repealed the Air Commerce Act of 1926, the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938, the Airways Modernization Act of 1957, and those portions of the various Presidential reorganization plans dealing with civil aviation. The act assigned the functions exercised under these repealed laws, which had been dispersed within the Federal structure, to two independent agencies--the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), which was created by the act, and the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), which was freed of its administrative ties with the Department of Commerce.

FAA came into existence with the signing of the Act, but assumed its functions in stages. Pursuant to the legislation, it also took over the responsibilities and personnel of the Airways Modernization Board, which were transferred to it by Executive Order 10786, on November l. FAA inherited as a nucleus the organization and functions of CAA on Dec 31, 1958. Later (on August 11, 1960), Executive Order 10883 terminated the Air Coordinating Committee, transferring its functions to FAA. Section 103 of the act concisely stated the Administrator's major powers and responsibilities as follows:

"(a) The regulation of air commerce in such manner as to best promote its development and safety and fulfill the requirements of national defense;

"(b) The promotion, encouragement, and development of civil aeronautics;

"(c) The control of the use of the navigable airspace of the United States and the regulation of both civil and military operations in such airspace in the interest of the safety and efficiency of both;

"(d) The consolidation of research and development with respect to air navigation facilities, as well as the installation and operation thereof;

"(e) The development and operation of a common system of air traffic control and navigation for both military and civil aircraft."

CAB, though retaining responsibility for economic regulation of the air carriers and for accident investigation, lost under the act most of its former authority in the safety regulation and enforcement field to FAA. The law provided, however, that any FAA order involving suspension or revocation of a certificate might be appealed to CAB for hearing, after which CAB could affirm, amend, modify, or reverse the FAA order. Provision was made for FAA participation in accident investigation, but determination of probable cause was to be the function of CAB alone. When the FAA assumed full operational status on Dec 31, 1958, it absorbed certain CAB personnel associated with the safety rulemaking function. (See Nov 1 and Dec 31, 1958.) “

Don Brown
August 23, 2008

Friday, August 22, 2008

Fired Up

In case you’re wondering, “What got Don so fired up ?” (about politics)...I thought I’d let you know. I’ve been fired up for some time. Federal employees have a lot of restrictions placed on them that keep them from participating in our political process. On one level, that is understandable. On another level, it makes you a second-class citizen. Put it down to “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” Now that I’ve retired, I’m ready to participate. Fully.

Let’s just say I was already primed. What inspired me was a seemingly random series of events. They’re not so random. I choose what to read. First I read Robert Reich’s blog entry -- McCain, Obama, and the Inherent Advantage of Caring More About Ends Than Means . (There’s a reason I keep those links over there in the left column you know.) Then (and this was random) I turned on the TV to catch the news. My wife had other plans. She was recording Driving Miss Daisy and I just happened to turn on the TV at exactly the right moment to hear this;

"History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and indifference of the good people. Our generation will have to repent not only for the words and acts of the children of darkness, but also for the fears and apathy of the children of light."

Who said that ? Read on and I’ll tell you later.

The final piece of the puzzle was in the book I’m currently reading -- The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power by Jeff Sharlet.

In it, I read these silly words; “Remember our war hysteria, when we called sauerkraut “Liberty Cabbage...”

Those words came from It Can't Happen Here, written by Sinclair Lewis and published in 1935.

“Liberty Cabbage.” Sounds a lot like “Freedom Fries” doesn’t it ? You remember those don’t you ? Here, refresh your memory. Be sure to note the party affiliations. And if you read far enough, you’ll notice that you don’t need to buy a book from 1935 to learn about “Liberty Cabbage.” You can read Wikipedia instead.

Ask yourself some serious questions. Do you really want to be on the side of intolerance and fear ? Do you really want the “vitriolic words “ and “violent actions“ to define your nation in the rest of the world’s eyes ? In forty years will you be proud of your “appalling silence and indifference“ ?

In 1965, the city of Atlanta held a tribute for a Georgian that had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Time magazine has their archives on line. It makes for interesting reading. Take a few moments to do so. It’s all there. The good and the evil. The darkness and the light. Perhaps it’s easier to see in hindsight.

Make no mistake about it, it isn’t always easy to tell good from evil in the chaos of the moment. Good decisions are made for the wrong reasons. Bad decisions are often made for the right reasons. Don’t let the difficulty of the task beat you into silence and indifference. Don’t let others turn your fears into hatred or apathy. Do your best. Make a choice. Take a stand.

"History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and indifference of the good people. Our generation will have to repent not only for the words and acts of the children of darkness, but also for the fears and apathy of the children of light."

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
January 27, 1965
Atlanta, Georgia

Don Brown
August 22, 2008

Thursday, August 21, 2008

No Doubt

As if there were any doubt to start with...

Conflicting Views of the Civil Service

”It's apparent from those comments that Obama (D-Ill.) has a more positive view of the federal civil service than McCain (R-Ariz.) does.“

Senator McCain can’t praise government. He’s a Republican trying to appeal to the government-is-the-problem Reaganites. Never mind that the government has supported him for his entire life. From his birth at a Naval Air Station hospital to his education at Annapolis to his gold-plated perks as a U.S. Senator. Please note, I don’t begrudge him any of these benefits. As far as I can tell, he’s earned them. It would just be nice if he would acknowledge that government has been a solution -- at least for some of us.

"Obama is concerned by the rising number of government contractors that are often unaccountable and frequently less efficient than government workers," said the statement from his office. He also promised to "reduce our nation's increasing dependence on private contractors in sensitive or inherently governmental functions" and "eliminate the Bush administration's ideological bias towards outsourcing of government services."

That’s enough to win me over right there. Of course, I didn’t need to be won over. I already knew the minor sins of contracting out VFR Towers and Flight Service Stations led to the evils of unaccountable mercenaries and even trying to privatize Social Security.

”Contrast that with McCain, who blamed union opposition to contracting out on "labor leaders looking to swell the ranks of federal government unions."“

Herein lies the crux of the matter for me. Greedy “labor leaders” didn’t approach me. I approached them. When controllers were being used and abused the government didn’t step in to help. Business certainly didn’t. It was Labor that agreed to help. I fail to understand how individuals that organize for their common good can be demonized by the same type of people that organize under the banner of the Air Transport Association or the Chamber of Commerce (for two examples.)

After almost eight years of the Bush Administration waging warfare on government unions, what has been accomplished ? How is government better ? It’s bigger, more incompetent and deeper in debt that ever. There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that unions in general (and government unions in particular) are weaker than ever. So if unions were the problem then where is the improvement ?

Along the same lines, if government was such a problem then why is Big Business -- the real power behind the Republican Party -- in such trouble ? The Bush Administration deregulated everything it could get its hands on. If Republican theories held water, Big Business ought to be booming. Instead it’s going bust. Banks, the housing industry and car manufacturers. As a matter of fact, they’re getting creamed by their business partner -- China. Communist China. Remember when they were the front-runners for the Republican’s never-ending list of boogey men you should fear ? Godless communists, welfare queens, gays, unions, Islamofascists...I forget -- which one am I supposed to blame (hate) this week for ruining my great country ?

I’ve got an idea. I think I’ll blame the ones that have been in charge. I think I’ll blame the ones that have -- for the last three decades -- advanced the flawed ideology that led to this mess. I think I’ll vote for somebody that believes in the power of government to do good and see if he can run it any better than those that don’t. That’s right. I’ll vote for Change. Change you can believe in. No Doubt.

Don Brown
August 21, 2008

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

“Free Flight” Found

The good old New York Times. I should have known to look in the "nations’ newspaper of record" first. It’s even written by our old friend, ace reporter Matthew Wald.

”The F.A.A., famous for missing deadlines for various improvements, is not saying when free flight will be fully implemented; in fact, David R. Hinson, the administrator, says it is not yet possible to say just what the system will look like when it is all done. But it has already begun “

For those that were still in grammar school, David Hinson was the Administrator from 1993 to 1996. And that was back before we’d become too familiar with saying "a billion dollars."

”A recent study for NASA estimated that by 2005, free flight could save the airlines nearly $4 billion a year. Bigger than the savings to airlines, but a little harder to measure, are the savings for passengers. The value of a traveler's time varies, of course. But a recent study by Daniel Brand, a consultant and the chairman of the transportation research board of the National Academy of Science, suggests that for a planeload of people it can run well over $100 a minute.“

$4 billion a year ! And that was back when gas was $1.46 a gallon -- for premium. The airlines must be saving so much money by now that they’re just giving away tickets. Passengers must be saving so much time by now that I bet they’re arriving before they took off.

And here’s one of those technical thingies for controllers;

”Also likely to come soon is letting planes climb as fast as they are engineered for, instead of at the standard speed that traffic managers prefer. Mr. Hinson said that planes flying below 10,000 feet were now generally limited to 288 miles per hour, but should be climbing around 380 m.p.h. “

How about it boys ? Help a feeble-minded old man out. They callin’ y’all managers instead of controllers now ? How about the 250 knots below 10,000 rule ? Has that gone away like those old, antiquated airways ?

Just in case anyone thinks I’m poking fun at Mr. Wald...he just passes along the information. That doesn’t mean he believes it. Take a look at something a little closer to today -- and the truth.

Despite F.A.A.’s Flight Limits, Airport Delays Worsen

The acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration said in an interview on Monday that while the new steps had helped at Kennedy and in some circumstances Newark, they had fallen short at La Guardia, which he said was still too busy.

“That airport can’t handle 81 operations an hour,” said the acting administrator, Robert A. Sturgell, referring to the limit for takeoffs and landings that his agency now imposes. “It has never handled 81,” he said, adding that further reductions would be needed.

In the first half of 2008, the F.A.A. recorded 164 delays of 15 minutes or more per thousand landings or takeoffs at La Guardia, up from 105 for the first half of 2007, meaning that the number of flights delayed in the air traffic system rose by more than half. (The statistics do not count delays because of mechanical problems, late-arriving crew and other factors).

It was “Free Flight” for my generation. It’s NextGen for the next one. There will be a new lie for the generation after that.

Don Brown
August 20, 2008

Free Flight and Writing

I was doing some research on “Free Flight” (remember that ?) and ran across this little amusing bit of information:

AcaDemon -- Term Papers and Essays

Airline Safety, 2007.
This paper discusses the technical complexities of regulating air traffic.
1,528 words (approx. 6.1 pages), 3 sources, MLA, AU$ 60.95
» Click here to show/hide summary

The paper relates that the problem of air traffic accidents as a result of poor traffic control occur more often than is recognized. The paper discusses conflict alert technology regarding air traffic control and looks at the human factor and its interaction with this system. The paper explores accidents that have occurred and concludes that even state of the art technology is not enough to ensure a safe flight. The paper shows how safety requires the complex integration of both humanity and technology.

Conflict Alert Technology
The Human Factor

From the Paper
"Faulty design in terms of either the planes themselves or the technology designed to guide them safely to land, for example, can cause accidents. While these design flaws are the result of human error, they are not as directly related to the human factor as air traffic controllers themselves. These workers are also human. Any number of factors, including fatigue, distraction or a momentary lack of concentration can cause an accident and the death of hundreds or even thousands of people. Most accidents as a result of this human factor, according to Don Brown (2005), occur in lower air space, where there is a significant amount of traffic landing or taking off."

61 bucks for a 1,500 word term paper ? I’m in the wrong business. 61 times 658 blog posts = AU$ 40,138. How much is that in American ?

Oh well, maybe it’s that other Don Brown in aviation that is being quoted. Maybe he’s the one that should feel old. Back to looking for “Free Flight.” I wonder where it went ?

Don Brown
August 20, 2008

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Rest In Peace, Mike

We’ve got to stop meeting like this.” That’s one of the stupid things I said yesterday. The kind of thing you say when you don’t know what to say. We’d come to bury another controller. And just like the others, we couldn’t bear to talk about what killed him.

Everybody has to watch their friends get older. Controllers are no different. There are other professions that break people too. Other professions ask the impossible of people. Controllers aren’t that unique.

I was shocked by what I saw yesterday. I know what has been happening. I’ve predicted it and even told you about it. Talking about it is one thing. Seeing it is quite another. Almost every single person was retired, within a year of retiring or was out a a medical. I didn’t see any of their replacements. But why would I ? Most weren’t around when Mike was working and besides, nobody wants to think too hard about the reason we were there. Especially not the young.

I don’t know where I’m going with all this. I don’t even know if I should try. I’m the last person on Earth that should try to explain people. They’re a mystery to me.

Some people try. Another controller friend sent me an email that has been floating around the controller community for a while now. Just bad timing on his part. He didn’t know Mike. He didn’t know we buried him yesterday.

”Put down your copy of Pushing Tin.

The truth is, the job sucks, even for those of us who LOVE it.

We are not appreciated by those that we protect, even though we save and protect more lives on a daily basis than any other profession.“

I don’t know how to say it without sounding self-serving either. Controllers don’t run into burning buildings. Nobody shoots at them. But there aren’t any flag-draped coffins in the end either. No official will make a speech acknowledging your service, no honor guard, no fly-bys, no anything. You’re lucky if you even have any friends left.

”You will never have a regular social life.

Your friends won't understand that you can't leave work or get off work.

They won't even be able to figure out your rotating schedule.

They'll stop calling because you're never home, or you're just leaving
for work. “

In the end, you’re just left with the ones you worked with -- the few that can understand the pressure and silently acknowledge that not everyone survives it.

”There is something "not right" about ALL of us.“

We won’t be able to explain it to the family. There is no official phraseology to bring them comfort. There isn’t even the blessed anonymity of being the faceless voice on the radio -- the one that can bring order to the chaos, help to those in trouble or the last bit of human contact to those that are about to die.

There’s just us, Mike. Standing around without anything profound to say -- without any answers. That’s all we’ve got. I wish it was different. I know you did too.

Rest in peace, brother.

Don Brown
August 19, 2008

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Solution is Slots (in 650 words or less)

The Department of Transportation recently announced its intention to auction off landing slots at Newark's airport -- effectively torpedoing a much-needed solution. That solution is effective, landing-slot restrictions at our nation’s commercial airports. While the industry props up a new scapegoat each week to explain its poor performance -- an answer to each and every problem presented is slot restrictions.

Antiquated and understaffed air traffic control ? Slot restrictions are a solution. Limiting the number of scheduled aircraft will buy us time to rebuild our air traffic control system. Airport gridlock caused by airline over scheduling ? Slots solve that problem too. In fact, over scheduling is the reason we’ve had slot controls in place since 1969 -- even if this Administration has ignored the need to enforce them. Airport noise caused by new flight paths trying (and failing) to cure airport congestion ? Yes, slot restrictions solve that too. Cure the airport congestion and you eliminate the stated rationale for redesigning the airspace over the New York area.

How about the dismal performance of the airline industry that is bleeding money -- even as it tries to nickel-and-dime its customers to death with charges for pillows, food and water ? Yes, appropriate slot restrictions will solve even that problem. If we limit the supply of landing slots at the nation’s busiest airports to a sustainable rate of air traffic -- sustainable even in typically poor weather -- the price of tickets will go up. Come now, you know there is no such thing as a free lunch. The airlines have to make money in order to survive. A competently managed slot restriction program will provide the market stability the airlines need to turn a profit -- for the long term.

The Bush Administration has slipped a “poison pill” into this sensible solution by turning a relatively simple, well-established regulatory function -- landing slot restrictions -- into an auction.

Who benefits ? Certainly not the citizens. The extra costs the airlines pay at auction will be passed along to the consumers. The debate over that question -- who gets the cash ? -- will delay any sensible regulatory solution until well after the Bush Administration is history. If their auction scheme survives the threatened lawsuits, they will have created a cash cow for some (unknown) entity -- be it the airport operator, the local government or even the U.S. DOT itself. In doing so, they will create an incentive to auction off more slots than the airport can handle.

In 1969, Congress passed the “High Density Rule”, implementing slot restrictions at New York’s Kennedy and LaGuardia airports, New Jersey’s Newark International, Chicago’s O’Hare and Washington DC’s National airport. Despite numerous attempts to revise and even kill it, the basic rule has remained in place. Take a critical look at that list. Atlanta -- the world’s busiest airport -- isn’t on it. Neither is Los Angeles (3rd busiest) or Dallas-Ft. Worth (4th busiest). It begs the question: Why is Washington National on the list ?

The answer lies in understanding that the clientele of National includes the United States Congress. To my knowledge, there has never been a serious proposal to eliminate the “High Density Rule” at Washington National. One effort to increase the number of slots was opposed by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority with this testimony;

”We are of course aware of the value of airport capacity and the need to efficiently use it. We are also very much aware of the need to control airport congestion that diminishes efficiency and undermines the reliability of air transportation and does not serve the traveling public.“

“One need only look to the airports where the High Density Rule was in place and then lifted, i.e., LaGuardia and O'Hare Airports, for examples of where demand will quickly outstrip capacity and diminish dependability to the point that the government has had to reassert controls. “

Slot controls can work. No auction needed. Just ask Congress.

Don Brown
August 17, 2008

P.S. 640 words to be exact.

The testimony given by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority

Busiest Airports in America

The U.S. Code defining the “High Density Rule”

Sunday, August 17, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- August 17 (08)

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

”Aug 17, 1994: President Clinton signed the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994. Under the new law, manufacturers could not be held liable for accidents happening more than 18 years after the production of general aviation aircraft, engines, or parts. The legislation was followed by an upturn for this sector of industry.“

It’s hard to say conclusively but it appears this law has been good for aviation and America. Some lawyers don’t seem to be too happy with it but it appears to have done it’s job -- General Aviation was revitalized.

GA produced 17,000 aircraft in 1979. By 1983, that number fell to 2,600.

Five years after the bill was signed, 25,000 new jobs had been created, aircraft production was up 100 percent and revenue from the export of general aviation aircraft had doubled.

Two observations:

1) President Bill Clinton wasn’t all bad.

2) Public policy can have the desired effect. Government can work.

Now, if only we’d come up with an effective public policy to save the airline industry. I’ve got an idea. What’s yours ?

Don Brown
August 17, 2008

Saturday, August 16, 2008

No New News

Nothing new to read here. I’ve been too busy reading The FAA Follies and The Main Bang (and downloading the documentation) from today.

Good grief ! Charlie Brown.

Don Brown
August 16, 2008

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Incompetence Knows No Borders

Is it live or is it Memorex ? (If you’re too young to remember that commercial slogan click here.)

No commentary is really necessary -- is this America or Australia ? Just remember that the Bush Administration and it’s privatization allies have been holding up Australia as a model for America’s air traffic control system. The system doesn’t really matter as much as the incompetents running it.

Be sure to read the comment section.

Public safety is paramount

”The problem stems from a critical shortage of skilled air-traffic controllers. This has also raised the issue of controllers working extended or double shifts because of staff shortages, leading to claims of fatigue and stress. And this is a profession in which there is not a margin for error. “

Thanks to Alice-Tassie for pointing out the editorial from The Courier Mail.

Don Brown
August 14, 2008

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Wall Street What ???

I was reading a Wall Street Journal editorial this morning -- Fixing the Unfriendly Skies -- and I stumbled on this lit bit of non-logic.

”Since 1969 when the High Density Rule put a limit on LaGuardia's flights, all three airports have been subject to limited operations each hour, causing constant delays.“

Having tried to write a few editorials I’m not going to give them a hard time about the oversimplification of the subject but logic is another thing. “... subject to limited operations each hour, causing constant delays. “ I can’t follow that. Can you ? Is it possible that they’re thinking the airlines schedule whatever they want but the FAA will only let so many land per hour ? Please tell me that isn’t what they’re thinking.

Despite whatever the Wall Street Journal editorial board may be thinking, the reality is that limiting the number of operations per hour is the only thing that keeps LGA, JFK and EWR running anywhere close to on time.

It was true in 1969...

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

”Originally implemented for a six-month period, this "High Density Rule" was subsequently extended to Oct 25, 1970. On that date, the hourly limitations on operations were suspended at Newark, where peak operations during fiscal 1970 had averaged 18 less than the assigned quota of 60. At the same time, the quotas were extended for another year at the other four airports. In taking this action, FAA noted that the percentage of aircraft delays at the five airports had decreased substantially since the rule was put into effect.

(emphasis added)

...and it’s still true today. After being badly burned by record delays, even the Bush Administration was forced to face reality.

U.S. Acts to Ease Crunch at New York-Area Airports

Published: December 19, 2007

” they announced a combination of agreements and orders intended to eliminate last summer’s epic delays.

At a briefing here at the Federal Aviation Administration’s strategic command center, Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters outlined the results of weeks of negotiations with airlines that produced a painstakingly pruned schedule during peak hours at Kennedy International Airport. This summer there will be a cap of 82 to 83 scheduled flights per hour, plus four unscheduled flights, at the busiest times of day. During some peak hours last summer, 95 flights were scheduled, and more than 105 would have been scheduled at those times next summer without this agreement, officials said. “

And just as sort of a post script (so I don’t have to figure out how to work it in), here’s another reality check. Just in case you don’t think that folks really recognize the core problem. I just stumbled on it while researching this piece.

City Sues to Block Increased La Guardia Flights

Published: June 15, 2000

As dozens of airlines take advantage of a new federal law easing restrictions on the number of flights in and out of New York City's airports, city officials say La Guardia Airport could be overwhelmed by delays and congestion and have filed suit to try to curb increased air traffic there.

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and the Queens borough president, Claire Shulman, filed suit on Tuesday against the Department of Transportation in the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The suit contends that the government must conduct an environmental impact study before allowing the airlines to add what city officials say could be as many as 500 additional flights a day in and out of La Guardia by the end of the year.

Don Brown
August 13, 2008

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Who’s Been Sleeping In My Bed ?

It is said that politics makes strange bedfellows.

ATA Sues FAA To Stop Newark Slot Auction Plan

”ATA filed suit today in the U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia, seeking to preclude FAA from carrying out the auction plan, which it claims is illegal since the "slots are not FAA property and cannot be auctioned by FAA," court documents said.“

I don’t claim it’s illegal (it might be) -- I just claim it’s stupid.

”DOT said it plans to use the funds generated from the auction "to reduce delays and enhance capacity at New York-area airports." “

There’s that “and” thing again. The way to reduce delays is to reduce the number of landing slots allocated at the airport. No ifs, “and”s or buts. (That “thunk !” you just heard was the ATA falling out of my bed.) The only thing that is going to enhance capacity is runways. Where are you going to build a runway at LaGuardia ? Okay, maybe if you spend $20 billion dollars on NexGen and get every airliner in the fleet equipped with synthetic vision you might increase the capacity by one or two airplanes per hour. Maybe. In 20 years.

While we’re here with the ATA (that’s the Air Transport Association by the way), let’s take a look at this story (from CNN Money) too.

Air Transport Association spent more than $2.2 million lobbying government in second quarter

”The group lobbied on issues including airline passenger rights, air transportation financing reform and Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization, according to the form posted online July 21 by the House clerk's office.“

I assume you noticed that it didn’t say the ATA was lobbying for passenger rights. But don’t let me get off on a tangent. I have some friends that always want me to believe that unions are oh-so powerful. Shoot, they have as much power as businesses. Not. Let’s compare.

Report: NATCA Spent Over $300K Lobbying Gov't In Q1

”NATCA spent nearly $1.3 million in lobbying activities in all of 2007, according to the Associated Press.“

NATCA, as you may recall, had this little problem last year -- they didn’t have a labor contract. I didn’t take the time to check it out but I suspect last year was a record for NATCA on the amount of money spent. Yet the ATA spent almost twice as much in one quarter as NATCA spent in an entire year.

In that we’re talking about power (and money is power) here -- that is the name of this game-- bleed the union dry. It might not have occurred to those not involved in a labor union that dues are tied to the member’s wages. Cut starting wages by 30% and you’ve cut union dues. Get rid of the older (better paid) controllers, replace them with starting workers and it’s like getting compound interest on your savings.

There’s one other thing while we’re here. And I can use the CNN Money story and The Aero-News Network again as sources.

From the CNN Money story:

”Among those registered to lobby on behalf of the ATA were: Clint Fisher, formerly of the Transportation Department among other federal positions; Sharon Pinkerton, who used to work for Rep. John Mica, R-Fla.;... “

Did any of my readers do as I’ve suggested before and look up the names ? Did you Google Sharon Pinkerton ? I did.

From a different story on The Aero-News Network:

”It could be a shot in the arm for those who theorize the FAA and the ATA are in collusion over the issue of user fees. The Air Transport Association (ATA) announced Friday that former FAA assistant adminstrator Sharon L. Pinkerton has been named the organization's vice president of government affairs. “

You do remember Representative John Mica don’t you ?

When you get through reading Mica’s link go back and read Sunday’s post -- That’s Two at Memphis.

I could provide these links all day but I’m tired now. I’m going to go crawl into my bed -- after I change the sheets.

Don Brown
August 12, 2008

Where’s the Beef ?

You would think old, retired controllers (like myself) would just fade away wouldn’t you ? I mean really...don’t we have anything better to do ? The truth is -- No, we don’t. There’s all that important stuff about saving lives, God and Country -- but I have to tell you, sometimes it’s kind of fun.

Fun like this morning, when a retired buddy sent me a new FAA memo that might as well be entitled -- Mock Me, Please.

I’m not going bore you and quote the whole thing. If you didn’t work for the FAA it’s not that funny. Well...maybe one part is. The FAA is looking for the “leaders” of tomorrow -- the controllers that will become supes, operations managers and on up the line. It’s called “Program for Emerging Leaders.”

”The program is designed after the USDA Graduate School’s Executive Potential Program. “

Moo ! Check out today’s headline.

Nebraska firm recalls beef due to E. coli: USDA

I can see the connection now. Send people to management school when your “core business” is failing. I don’t even have to find a way to compare beef inspecting to air traffic controlling. I can just go with beef inspections and aircraft inspections. What the heck. It’s not like failure at any of the three can get anybody killed. Right ?

Please note, the memo doesn’t say the FAA will send you to the USDA program, it says their program is “ designed after” the USDA program. That is like going to New York City to buy a Louis Vuitton handbag -- on Canal Street instead of 3rd Avenue.

Let me pass along a question to FAA management from a concerned reader; “Do you idiots get drug tested ?”

Don Brown
August 12, 2008

Monday, August 11, 2008

Fly By Night

Tell me, when was the last time you stayed up all night long ? I’m not talking about your all-night partying type of all night long. I’m talking about sitting through the wee hours of the morning, standing watch over a sick child or other loved one. I’m talking about staying up all night and paying attention. Not for the fun of it but because you have to do it.

It isn’t much fun is it ? Anyone that has done it and is over 40 knows that it actually hurts.

Let’s say it’s 9 o’clock at night. You’ve had a long day, you’re just settling in to watch the TV and the phone rings. It’s your boss and he wants you to show up in two hours to cover the midnight shift. What do you say ? Do you think the extra money would offset the pain of staying up all night long, ruining your night and probably whatever plans you had for the next day and night ?

As most of you have already guessed, we’re not talking about just anybody. We’re talking about air traffic controllers. So, there are a couple of other factors you have to throw in. First, if you had a glass of wine with dinner, you’re disqualified. You can’t come in and you’d be fired if you did. Now you’re not talking about messing up your life but possibly ending the lives of others. If you got up even as late as 7 AM that means you’ll be controlling traffic during the next morning’s rush hour without having slept in 24 hours. Is that safe ? It’s not even smart.

And then it occurs to you, the guy on the phone is the one that won’t let you take a nap on your break. As a matter of fact, he’ll try to get you fired if you do fall asleep at 4 AM. He’s the guy that won’t raise your pay. He’s the guy that says “good riddance” when the senior controllers retire early. He’s the guy that has scheduled you for overtime 6 weeks in a row. He’s the guy that keeps lying to the public, telling them that they don’t need to hire any controllers, which is the reason he’s bothering you at home on your time off, trying to ruin even more of your time off.

What would you say to the guy on the other end of the phone ?

If you were Australian, you’d tell him, “No”.

Good for them.

Don Brown
August 11, 2008

Sunday, August 10, 2008

That’s Two at Memphis

From today’s AP story about yesterday’s outage at Memphis Center:

"Any system that run 24/7, occasionally there's going to be an outage," she said. "Outages are very, very rare and we're very adept at handling them."

I assume Ms. Kathleen Bergen, even though she is only an FAA spokesperson, knows the difference between “rare” and too often. It’s like me, being only an ex-controller, can tell you that a car crash is not supposed to be able to cause a plane crash.

”The outage began about 3:30 p.m. CDT when a car in Memphis struck a utility pole and severed a fiber-optic cable, FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said, adding air safety was not compromised. “

Let me tell you what little I know about the power system at Atlanta Center -- where I used to work. Anyone that knows me well will laugh at the thought of me describing a mechanical system. I’m the dumbest of the dumb when it comes to anything mechanical. But the concept is really easy to understand. Even if you’re an FAA spokesperson.

At Atlanta Center (which is very much like Memphis Center), we had commercial power coming into the facility from two different sources. One line came in from a source to the north and a completely different electrical line came in from the south. Two independent sources of commercial power. Then we had two completely separate diesel generators. Either one could run what was called “critical power.” That was the supply needed to run the radar scopes and the radios. But that still wasn’t good enough. To back that up, we had an entire building full of batteries.

That’s a safe backup plan. Two sources of power, two backup generators and a battery backup. If the FAA went to that much trouble to backup just the power, what kind of system do you think they should have in place for the radios and radars ? If we’re not going to have an effective backup to the radios and radars you might as well do away with the expensive power system. The power is useless without the equipment it operates.

”Saturday's outage showed that the system needs more backups, said Ron Carpenter, a Memphis controller and president of the local branch of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

"The biggest concern that we have is that we are no longer talking to airplanes," Carpenter said. "We can do without radar (in an emergency), but we need to talk to airplanes." “

That statement should make it plain enough. The radar information and the radios should be on separate circuits. Each sector had three radios when I was a controller and I assume most still do. You had the main, the BUEC (BackUp Emergency Communication) and the BUEC could switch to a completely different radio site. In other words, if a car crashed into your radio transmitter -- taking out the whole site -- you could switch the radio to another site in another location.

The logic is the same. If we went to that much trouble to make sure our equipment was dependable, why would you have a “single point of failure” somewhere else in the system ? The answer is obvious. You wouldn’t.

I’ll wait to hear from the experts. In the meantime, I’ll remind you of what they told us last time.

”And Memphis Center was the site of perhaps the worst FTI-related outage, on Sept. 25, 2007. That day, a major failure left controllers without the ability to use most of their radio frequencies and some of their radar feeds. “

Don Brown
August 10, 2008

Well ? Did You ?

Did you write your Senators ? Do you need some help ?


Senator _______,

I am writing to ask you to sign on as a cosponsor of S3416 -- The Federal Aviation Administration Employee Retention Act.

The FAA's controllers have been without a contract for over 700 days. Controllers are retiring faster than the FAA can train new-hires. Please help resolve this situation now -- before any more damage is done to our National Airspace System.

Please become a cosponsor of The Federal Aviation Administration Employee Retention Act.


Copy the text above and then click here to find your Senators. Fill in the blanks, sign your name and you’re done. Time yourself. You’ll be done in less that 5 minutes. I promise it won’t hurt.

Don Brown
August 10, 2008

Saturday, August 09, 2008

21 Days

Forgive me for being a little slow on the uptake. I’ve been focused on safety-related matters instead of legislative matters. I’ve failed to fully appreciate last Thursday’s announcement that Senators Lautenberg and Inhofe are cosponsoring S3416, The Federal Aviation Administration Employee Retention Act .

The political junkies out there are probably now saying, “Inhofe ???”. Yep. And it gets even better. In Pat Forrey’s (President of NATCA) weekly update, Senator Inhofe is quoted as saying;

”...[a]s a pilot I am well acquainted with the exceptional work done by the employees of the FAA and I know first hand that our aviation system is only is as good as these employees. They deserve the right to bargain in good faith on their employment contracts. This bill will give them that opportunity. “

For those unfamiliar with Senator Inhofe, you can read his Wikipedia entry. In short, he is one of the most conservative Senators out there. Senator Lautenberg has a long (and welcomed) history of helping out controllers. Being a Democrat, helping a labor union isn’t politically unusual. But Senator Inhofe ? That is about as unusual as it gets.

It must be a common interest. Could it be safety ? If two Senators as far apart as Lautenberg and Inhofe can agree on something then you should be able to support it too. You can read more about the bill at

So, what’s the catch ? If you look at the Congressional calendar, you’ll see there are only 21 working days scheduled for the rest of this Congress. That presents a very small amount of time to get anything done. I wouldn’t wait for anybody to get the automatic-letter-writing web sites up. If I was interested in helping out, I’d write my Senator today and ask them to sign on as a cosponsor of S3416 -- The Federal Aviation Administration Employee Retention Act.

Don Brown
August 9, 2008

Friday, August 08, 2008

N12345, You’re Busted

As I mentioned yesterday, AVweb broke the story about the FAA putting a renewed emphasis on busting pilots for deviations. In talking with my sources, I found out this is the penalty that controllers potentially face:

Concealment of an operational error or deviation.     

First Offense: 30-day suspension to removal.      

Second Offense: Removal

Rules always look so cut-and-dried. They aren’t. This isn’t a new rule. It’s been on the books. I saw a supervisor get three days off for covering up an error over twenty years ago. It wasn’t a malicious act. He recognized that it was an honest mistake and went with the “no harm, no foul” line of reasoning. When it came to light, upper management used their discretion to make it 3 days on the beach instead of 30.

Today is different. The controllers don’t trust the FAA to be reasonable and exercise discretion anymore. Why should they ? They’ve been working under imposed work rules for over 700 days. The FAA tried to fire 11 controllers in New York for failing to check a box on a medical form -- for a question the FAA already knew the answer to. The fact that they were all rehired (after weeks without any health insurance) didn’t take the impact out of the message -- the FAA will mess up your life to make their point. The FAA has tried to fire several union representatives. I could go on for a long time but the message is clear -- the FAA wants to keep their controller workforce intimidated.

Now, how many times have I asked for your help -- you, the readers -- in correcting this injustice ? Remember this from just last month ?

”Aviation’s movers and shakers will all be at OSH this year -- just like every year. I want the aviation community to start making some noise. I want this thing settled. I know my readers and I know what kind of clout they have -- financial, political and moral. The controllers have made their case. They have spoken the truth and they’ve been patient. It’s time the aviation community started using their clout to correct this wrong. “

For the pilots out there, does the current situation make your thought processes any clearer ? Do you want a proud and brave controller workforce -- willing to stand up to injustice -- or do you want them to cower in fear of their employer and to start writing you up every time you make an honest mistake ? It’s gut check time. What’s it going to be ?

I’m not a leader of men. Read this from somebody that is.

Show your courage.  Be part of a greater act of civil disobedience and defiance.  Don't let the occupation force divide you from your friends in the cockpit.  This one is a backwards Nike swoosh:  Just don't do it “

Click on the link. Read the whole thing.

Not every controller in the country has the courage of John Carr. I don’t think I do. I depend on people like him to give me courage. When it came time for me to put my job on the line, I could only do it because John Carr said he would back me up.

How about you ? Are you going to help controllers find the courage they need to do their jobs ? Are you going to back them up if they get 30 days off for failing to bust you for an honest mistake ? Make no mistake about it -- this isn’t about safety. I’ll put my reputation about safety up against anybody’s. There are far more effective ways to ensure the safety of the system than by intimidating people. This is about having the courage to do what is right. You shouldn’t need any proof but if you do, click here.

It is in your best interest to have a workforce with enough courage to do what is right. It is in your best interest to provide the moral support the controllers need to keep their courage. Get busy.

"Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others."

Winston Churchill

Don Brown
August 8, 2008

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Surf’s Up (Again)

The latest wave of news is out. Let’s get right to it.

AVweb broke this story about the FAA’s latest bit of madness.

Controllers As Airspace Police?

” The FAA has apparently ordered controllers to violate pilots for any and all errors and has threatened to discipline them if they don't file the reports. “

There’s no telling the thought process of whatever genius came up with this one. I suspect there could be many an unintended consequence because of it though. The rank-and-file controllers haven’t got the briefing from the FAA yet -- but if you know anything about the process, you know that it will be interpreted as many different ways as there are FAA managers. The only thing I’m willing to say for certain is that the folks at NASA’s ASRS will be busy. This could get ugly.

Over at Government Executive you can read a story about “credit hours” an alert reader sent me.

Judge: FAA owes air traffic controllers overtime pay

”A federal judge has ruled that the Federal Aviation Administration's personnel authorities do not allow the agency to compensate air traffic controllers who work overtime in credit hours and compensation time instead of paying them standard time-and-a-half rates, as required under the federal 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. “

“Credit hours” are a method for the FAA to avoid paying overtime while allowing controllers to swap shifts to get a day off. Controllers haven’t been able to get spot leave (unscheduled time off) since long before I left the FAA. They’d ask a buddy (who was off that day) to work for them so they could attend their sister’s wedding (or whatever.) The buddy would get “credit hours” -- leave that he could use whenever the FAA decided they could let him off the schedule (without using overtime to cover his shift, of course.) It was a perverted system to cover the FAA’s staffing shortage without paying overtime. I called them “crack hours.” Everybody knew they were bad for the system but if that was the only way you could get a day off...take another hit from the pipe. Rehab will be expensive.

And to top it all off, there has been a rash of accidents and incidents -- in Minnesota, Oregon, New York and now California.

It’s enough to make you wonder if we’re still in “the safest period in the history of aviation.”

Don Brown
August 7, 2008

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Is Bush Bonkers ?

The last few days have seen several news stories on the Department of Transportation’s plan to auction off landing slots at New York/New Jersey’s main airports -- starting with Newark (EWR.) No one -- and I mean absolutely no one -- supports this scheme. Not the airlines, the NY/NJ Port Authority, the State government, Congress, me -- no one.

Yet, the Bush Administration plows straight ahead. Here’s the story from The New York Times.

”The auction is opposed by key members of Congress and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airport. The Port Authority announced on Monday — in anticipation of the Transportation Department’s move — that any airline that bought the slots would be forbidden to use a terminal at Newark Airport for those flights. “

My readers know that I support the slot restriction system. I can see no possible reason for auctioning off the slots though. Cui Bono ? Who benefits ? I haven’t figured it out yet. I know I don’t like the smell of it. Lets face it -- it’s a little late in Bush’s term of office to butt heads with everyone about aviation policy.

Readers with sharp memories will note that D.J. Gribbin was mentioned in the article and in Get the Flick previously. Stay tuned. I’m sure the motive will become painfully obvious -- sooner or later.

Don Brown
August 6, 2008

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Welcome Back “The Bang”

In case you didn’t see it already, John Carr has put up The Main Bang again. He (of course) has a new post up (about his legal problems) but the whole site is available. If you’re like me and you haven’t been able to get a piece of information on the site that you needed -- here’s your chance.

Don Brown
August 5, 2008

Good Trashy Fun

Well, okay, maybe “trashy” is the wrong word. Maybe “tacky” would be a better one. Regardless, Janet Evanovich’s latest Stephanie Plum novel -- Fearless Fourteen -- has all the fun we’ve come to know and love.

There’s no point in me delving into the plot -- it’s the same old plot as it always is. Stephanie attracts trouble like trailers attract tornadoes. Ms. Evanovich takes you through the whirlwind of losers, loonies and lovers only to wind up with Stephanie standing on her own two feet again -- skint knees, mussed hair and smeared makeup intact.

I was in the middle of reading my usual serious fare (Lies My Teacher Told Me) when I found myself waiting around for my wife with nothing to do. So I stole the book she was reading -- Fearless Fourteen. Once you start a Stephanie Plum novel you can’t put it down. America’s educational problems can wait. Stephanie has a new car, Lula has a new outfit (leather !) and Grandma Mazur has a new do.

If you’re one of the unfortunate souls that doesn’t know what I’m talking about, you should probably start with the first book -- One For the Money. That’s how simple these books are -- you don’t even have to work at keeping up with the titles. One For the Money, Two For the Dough and Three to Get Deadly, etc.,etc. I’ve read them all. You can’t brag about it. But they are fun. Good, trashy fun.

Don Brown
August 5, 2008

Controllers Have Cure for Energy Crisis

HAMPTON, GA, August 5, 2008 -- A group of the world’s most preeminent air traffic controllers, while sitting on the picnic tables under the pavilion at the Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center, came up with the solution to America’s crippling energy crisis. Local president, Calvin Phillips, reading from his notes written on the back of a grievance form told the crowd, “If the oil companies hadn’t allowed the pipeline technology to become so outdated there would be no energy crisis. The Alaskan pipeline is 31 years old and is one of the newer pipelines in the country. We believe that the oil companies should build more pipelines and until they do, the government needs to step in and auction off the limited space within those pipelines.”

That fantasy makes as much sense as this one from MarketPlace.

Brattle Group Principal Dorothy Robyn Recommends Major Changes to Air Traffic Control System

” Dr. Robyn's remarks were based on her paper, "Air Support: Creating a Safer and More Reliable Air Traffic Control System," one of six new papers written for The Hamilton Project around which the forum was organized. The paper argues that the nation's air traffic control system, run by the Department of Transportation's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), has not kept up with the explosive growth in air travel. For instance, in 2007 flight delays cost passengers and airlines more than $12 billion in lost time and fuel. Moreover, controllers and pilots continue to rely on antiquated air traffic control technology, which contributes to delays and the rising cost of the system.“

Dr. Robyn, I’m sure, is a very good policy advisor. But I’m still not sure how “air traffic control technology “ has any bearing on runway capacity. I don’t know how many ways I can say it or how many times supposed experts can ignore it -- it’s the runways, stupid. Tell me, how can technology expand the capacity of the Alaskan Pipeline ?

There may actually be some capacity improvements we could make. Who would you ask about that ? The CEO of Exxon ? You might. But I’d start with the guys running the pipeline. After all, that is who has the answer. The CEO will ask the same guys -- only with 10 layers of management filtering the answer. But at the end of the day, you and I both know that even if you filled the pipeline from one end to the other with oil, the capacity is limited. It only holds so much. You don’t need an engineering degree to figure that one out.

It follows that a Ph.D. in Public Policy (Ms. Robyn) should be able to figure out that a runway has a finite capacity. The current air traffic control system can overwhelm that capacity. Better technology would be welcome but it won’t change the capacity. Only more concrete will change the base capacity of an airport.

” Dr. Robyn proposes that Congress create a new agency within the Department of Transportation focused exclusively on the delivery of air traffic control services and regulated at arm's length by the FAA. “

This argument, on the surface, sounds a little more reasonable. But examples are out there and the reality doesn’t support the theory. What you wind up with is the computer equivalent of the software manufacturer blaming the hardware manufacturer (and vice versa) while you sit there was a busted computer. It also ignores the fact that the FAA -- at one time -- was considered the best air traffic control service provider in the world. This same argument was made about the FAA’s previous dual mandate to regulate and promote aviation. Removal of that (seemingly) conflicting mandate hasn’t improved the FAA at all. The FAA has only gotten worse. (I’m not making a case for cause and effect between those two events. I’m just stating an observation.)

I’ve taken the time to read one Dr. Robyn’s papers. She makes her case better than the Press presents it but it is still flawed. She swallows the NextGen propaganda hook, line and sinker. What is missing is a fundamental understanding of air traffic control. For controllers, this is all too familiar. Consider her proposal to separate the operation of air traffic control from the regulation of air traffic control again. That will give us air traffic control inspectors. Somebody has to make sure the controllers are doing their job, right ? Who is going to do that ? Who understands air traffic control on the level needed to inspect it ? The answer is obvious -- air traffic controllers. Where are you going to find them ? There is only one place in America -- in the FAA. Now you’re creating the same revolving door between a company and the regulator that we’re dealing with in airline inspections.

Once again, we find the media and the policy wonks nibbling around the edges of the problem. I seriously don’t know if they don’t understand the basic problem of if they do understand it and are trying to distract the public with costly non-solutions that only generate income for various entities but no relief for the traveling public. If we want more capacity, build more runways. It’s that simple. If we are unwilling to build more runways (for whatever reasons) then we must regulate demand to match our existing airport capacity. It doesn’t take new technology or a Ph.D. or a complicated auction scheme. It just takes a leader willing to tell the truth and act on it. Has anybody seen one of those ?

Don Brown
August 5, 2008