Saturday, March 14, 2009

Did Someone Say Dinosaur ?

Jurassic Bark has a good post up from a few days ago.

”A new generation of air traffic controllers are becoming certified with lots of automated equipment to help them do their jobs. However, what happens when the automated equipment fails or fails to perform as expected? “

Indeed. The FAA’s answer to this age-old problem seems to be the classic business response -- the Hamburger Stand Option. If the electricity goes out, or if the computer quits -- just stop selling hamburgers and let your customers go hungry. It’s too expensive to hire only people that can count change (just because they’ve been to college doesn’t mean they can count change) and besides, they’d forget how to do it after a few weeks of being a “mouse-clicking monkey”.

I’ve always wanted the FAA to take the “Waffle House Option”. I don’t think that the entire country is blessed with having a Waffle House on almost every corner so perhaps a few details are in order.

The Waffle House is nothing fancy. And that’s being generous in some cases. But there’s one thing about it -- the Waffle House model works. Walk into any Waffle House and you’ll be on familiar ground. They’re all the same. If you’ll look closely you might notice a few details. At first, you’ll think it’s chaos. The waitresses yell their orders to the cook. (Emphasis on yell.) That is where it starts to get interesting. You’ll notice that the cook doesn’t write down the order and the waitresses don’t give him their written copy. It’s all in his head.

When you think about it, it’s pretty impressive. Try holding “order scrambled, bacon, hash browns scattered, covered and chunked with wheat -- order over easy, sausage, hash browns smothered, covered, chunked, topped and diced with white, times two” in your head along with a half-dozen other orders and Hank wailing on the jukebox. It ain’t easy.

Then, when you get your bill and pay it, you’ll notice something else. All the waitresses can count change. As a matter of fact, most of the time you won’t see a calculator around. They total up the bill -- and calculate the tax -- by using their brains.

Stop and think about how unique that is in our world now. It’s not rocket science. We’re talking grade-school math. But you don’t see anyone doing it anymore -- much less a business that relies on it.

Instead, you see cash registers with pictures on them (for the truly talented) that force their users to adapt to counting change like a computer instead of like a person so that they can’t do it when the machine quits. Of course, it’s not really a problem because if the electricity goes out, the cash drawer won’t open anyway.

Not so at the Waffle House. There are some things at the Waffle House that run on electricity but nothing they can’t live without. The grill runs on gas so they keep right on cooking. The waitresses can do the math and count the change. Even the cash drawer will open. They’d make do even if it didn’t. They would just keep writing things down on those yellow notepads and keep slinging hash browns until the cook passed out from the heat. The air-conditioning, lights and waffle irons don’t work when the electricity is out but they can still feed their customers.

As I was saying before I got carried away with the Waffle House, the FAA has been and continues to do a poor job of designing the system to fail gracefully. They are becoming increasingly dependent upon their technology and don’t have what I consider to be a viable plan for operating should the technology fail. Stopping the departures on the ground is a given. But what do you do with the airplanes that are already airborne ? This isn’t an academic question. Failures happen.

It was said before I was a controller and i is still true today. The FAA keeps trying to replace controllers with computers. And they keep failing. When all else fails, the controllers still work. The FAA seems determined to make sure that that part of the system fails too. But hey, you don’t have to take my word for it. Take a controller’s word.

Me ? I’ve flung a craving on myself. I’m headed to the Waffle House. Cheesy Eggs & Grits. Yum. Did you know that the Waffle House sells more grits than anybody else in the world ? Not to mention the 495, 264, 367 waffles they’ve sold. Or the 1,173,838,328 orders of hash browns.

Don Brown
March 14, 2009

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