Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Idiots In Charge

The U.S. Department of Inspector General has released a new report on the controller staffing levels in California. If you read this blog on a regular basis, you already know what it says -- even if you haven’t seen it. I actually think the IG does a fair job so my contempt is for the idiots in charge at the FAA -- past and present.

Here’s the “big duh” part from the Los Angeles Times:

”The inspector general recommended that the FAA validate the staffing levels at the two tracking centers; improve financial incentives to keep experienced controllers on the job; provide enough instructors to train an unprecedented surge in new employees; and address a dramatic increase in overtime paid to controllers, which has grown almost 900% in the last two years at LAX. “

Here’s the contemptible part:

”"The report acknowledges what the FAA has said for years -- that hiring and training large numbers of new controllers is a big challenge, but it is a challenge we have prepared for," said Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman in Los Angeles. “


The report goes on to state that the FAA should treat their employees as decent human beings should be treated, seek psychological therapy and close the barn door even though the horse is already gone. Well, it might as well say that for all the good it’s going to do. The damage has already been done. Read it anyway. You won’t believe how bad some of the staffing numbers are. Well, if you’ve been paying attention you will -- but you won’t.


Just a little historical footnote for you, from the nation’s newspaper of record -- The New York Times.

”The Senate unanimously confirmed Marion C. Blakey, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, as administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. Ms. Blakey, President Bush's choice to lead the agency, will succeed Jane F. Garvey, whose five-year term expired in August. Ms. Blakey, 54, has promised to hire and train air traffic controllers aggressively to compensate for the expected retirements of as many as 5,000 by 2006.“

That was published on Thursday, September 12, 2002.


Don Brown
April 29, 2009

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

ADS-B Here

There’s an interesting article in Aviation Week about ADS-B. In essence, it’s being installed as we speak. You can read it for yourself (2 pages) but let me point out a few “gotcha”s.

”While ADS-B has been employed for air traffic control before, the FAA will break new ground by using it to provide standard 3-mi. aircraft separation in terminal airspace, says Vincent Capezzuto, the agency's program head. “

Notice that 3 miles is already the standard separation in “terminal” airspace -- as in “not enroute” airspace. Standard separation in enroute airspace is 5 miles. In other words, nobody is running airplanes any closer together. This is good. But it is not what the public has been promised.

”The Houston deployment is unique: Some of the ground stations will be installed on offshore oil platforms, giving the FAA radar-like surveillance over the Gulf of Mexico for the first time.“

How to install “ground equipment” in the middle of the ocean has plagued the FAA for years. I won’t go into all the details -- I just want to point out that the “space-based” system is dependent on oil rigs. Oil rigs that are not in a fixed location and are owned by somebody else. Say, don’t they abandon those things during a hurricane ?

”ITT has already begun installing the more limited "essential service" ADS-B infrastructure - providing only cockpit information - even as development of the critical-service version was underway.“

This, in my opinion, is going to provide one of the most significant human factors challenges for NextGen. People always lose their minds when they see new technology (Look ! Something shiny !) and never think about how people will misuse the technology. For instance, think about a controller calling traffic to another pilot when they can “see” each other on ADS-B.

Controller: N12345, traffic two o’clock, 7 miles, a Cessna Citation. You’ll be number two behind that traffic, report the traffic in sight.

N12345: Roger, Approach, we’ve got ADS-B, we see November one two three charlie charlie.

N123CC: November one two three charlie charlie, did you call us Approach ?

Now, if you’re thinking call sign confusion, that is good. But does N12345 have N123CC “in sight” ? And if you think pilots will instinctively be able to separate themselves using a radar-scope-like device (an ADS-B display in the cockpit), you’ve got another thing coming. Every pilot and controller in the country will have to be trained on new phraseology. Everybody knows, don’t get me started on phraseology.

”The ADS-B contract represents a new approach for the FAA. The decision was made early to have an outside company own the infrastructure, and the FAA would contract for service provision. This would shift a lot of the program risk from the FAA to the contractor.“

I think this is going to be a huge can of worms. This stuff isn’t like a personal computer that you will throw away after three or four years. This is infrastructure upon which your national air transportation system will depend for years and years. 20 years. Maybe even 40. Every system that I can think of in the FAA has been used far longer than the original estimate. Radars, radar scopes, printers, radios -- everything. That’s a long time to lease equipment. And it doesn’t even begin to address the concerns about maintenance and certification.

Don Brown
April 28, 2009

Monday, April 27, 2009

Read These

I’ve read three great pieces from three great writers today. If I take the time to comment on each and tie them together, I’m afraid you won’t take the time to read them. So, just go read them.

Frank Rich has an opinion piece entitled, The Banality of Bush White House Evil .

”Five years after the Abu Ghraib revelations, we must acknowledge that our government methodically authorized torture and lied about it. But we also must contemplate the possibility that it did so not just out of a sincere, if criminally misguided, desire to “protect” us but also to promote an unnecessary and catastrophic war. Instead of saving us from “another 9/11,” torture was a tool in the campaign to falsify and exploit 9/11 so that fearful Americans would be bamboozled into a mission that had nothing to do with Al Qaeda. The lying about Iraq remains the original sin from which flows much of the Bush White House’s illegality. “

Paul Krugman, as almost always, has something important to say.

Money for Nothing

”Remember that the gilded Wall Street of 2007 was a fairly new phenomenon. From the 1930s until around 1980 banking was a staid, rather boring business that paid no better, on average, than other industries, yet kept the economy’s wheels turning.

So why did some bankers suddenly begin making vast fortunes? It was, we were told, a reward for their creativity — for financial innovation. At this point, however, it’s hard to think of any major recent financial innovations that actually aided society, as opposed to being new, improved ways to blow bubbles, evade regulations and implement de facto Ponzi schemes. “

And the last is from Fred Hiatt at the Washington Post

600,000 Bad Hires?
Making Federal Jobs Cool Once Again

We have a wonderful chance to change our country for the better. We can’t do it by ignoring our past sins, repeating history or trying to run a government without good people.

Don Brown
April 27, 2008

Saturday, April 25, 2009

ATC History Rewind

There is the most interesting article about New York air traffic controllers in -- of all things -- GQ magazine. (Thanks to AW for the tip because I never would have thought to look there.) As I was reading it, it dawned on me just how familiar the circumstances were. Yes, I know...I know. I’m the last person that should be surprised that history is repeating itself. Lord knows, I’ve said it does enough times.

It’s always the little twists that throw you. Just as I suspected, to the insider, this article shows how the FAA workforce is being rebuilt, nearly from the ground up. It’s the “nearly” part that provides the twist. And I never saw this twist coming. The difference is the union. My union. NATCA.

NATCA takes a few hits in this article. Some, I suspect, not wholly undeserved. Nevertheless, it is interesting to read. You see, when I was in the phase of my career that these controllers are in there wasn’t a union. Ronald Reagan had busted PATCO and it took six years to get NATCA started. That was six years in which the FAA had a free hand to do whatever it wanted to do. And it did. That was the reason NATCA was formed -- because the FAA did it so poorly.

Now, evidently, that clarity doesn’t exist because NATCA exists. I can see how it would confuse the newer controllers. “If NATCA wasn’t so obstinate maybe this situation would improve.” Its quite understandable how a young person would think that. I never had to unravel that mystery. There was no union to share the blame. If you think I’m talking only in terms of employee relations you would be mistaken. I’m talking about the FAA doing its job. NATCA was founded in 1987. Find 1987 in this post and check out the numbers. The credit for the decline in Near Mid Air Collisions (NMAC) after 1987 doesn’t belong to NATCA so much as the rise leading up to the peak in 1987 belongs to the FAA.

But I’m getting off course. This is supposed to be about the article in GQ. It’s a long one, so you’ll need to set some time aside to read it. Here’s a teaser to give you a feel for it. (Italics is used in the original format.)


“When I went down 14th Street and talked to the people at the FAA about meeting some controllers, they assumed I was there to talk about misery. Had I spoken to anyone at NATCA? What did they say? They wanted to squelch rumors. They spoke of the union as if it were a bunch of bratty little girls throwing fits for a candy fix. They handed me a handsome four-color glossy report proving that controllers were happy, or if they weren’t, they should be. Everything is fine. Don’t panic. Everything is under control.


You see, it’s not your standard fare. And it was easier to let you read it than to figure out how to describe it. There is one other quote I wanted to provide so that I could answer one of Ms. Laskas’ questions.

” We sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Whitestone Expressway and wonder why morale at the LaGuardia tower is so completely different than it is at the TRACON.“

That’s easy. It’s the number of managers. It goes beyond this simple explanation but I can at least get you thinking in the right direction. Think about the smallest Tower out there. It’s got one manager. He’s the only one that can get you fired. He’s the only one providing direction. He’s the only one that has to be pleased with your work. If you get a good manager, you get a good place to work. If you get a bad manager, you get a bad place to work.

Now, lets move to the opposite side of the spectrum -- an Air Route Traffic Control Center. (New York Tracon has as many controllers as some Centers.) You have dozens and dozens of managers. In Atlanta Center, we had seven different Areas. There were seven supervisors in each Area -- one for each set of days off. Each Area had a manager -- the Area Manager -- in charge of the seven supervisors. One of the Area Managers was in charge of the entire control room at all times. You never knew which one you would be working with.

That’s 56 managers right there. There were even more managers roaming around in other places. You were bound to bump heads with at least one of them. And if you think a union is bad about sticking up for one of its own (right or wrong), you ought to watch managers. The union didn’t invent “Us vs. Them”. Trust me. I remember when there wasn’t an “Us”. There was just a “Them”. I also remember when I thought I could be friends with “Them”, just like some of the controllers in this article do. One day, they’ll figure out that it’s hard to be friends with the guy that will fire you. He won’t want to fire you because he too thinks he’s your friend and he knows you don’t really deserved to be fired. But he will. His job, marriage, kids and mortgage will all depend on it. And he’ll do his job. Because he’s “Them” and nobody will stand up to them but “Us”.

Don Brown
April 25, 2009

Friday, April 24, 2009

Personal Note

This really is just a personal note. After all, these things (blogs) got their start as personal diaries. Yesterday, April 23rd, was the first day it hit 80 degrees down here. That is my personal, unofficial beginning of summer. Bugs, sweat and jeers. I hate summer.

Don Brown
April 24, 2009

It’s Stupid Too

Torture is not only wrong, evidently, it’s stupid too. Every American citizen needs to read this letter in The New York Times from ex-F.B.I. supervisory special agent, Ali Soufan.

”One of the most striking parts of the memos is the false premises on which they are based.“

We supposedly decided to use “enhanced techniques” because normal interrogations weren’t working. But normal interrogations were working.

”We discovered, for example, that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Abu Zubaydah also told us about Jose Padilla, the so-called dirty bomber. “

Mr. Soufan then goes to call the memos outright lies.

”Defenders of these techniques have claimed that they got Abu Zubaydah to give up information leading to the capture of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a top aide to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and Mr. Padilla. This is false. “

Does anybody remember the fallout from 9/11 ? That the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing ? That if the various agencies in the government had been talking to each other we might have discovered the plot in time to stop it ?

”One of the worst consequences of the use of these harsh techniques was that it reintroduced the so-called Chinese wall between the C.I.A. and F.B.I., similar to the communications obstacles that prevented us from working together to stop the 9/11 attacks. “

The F.B.I. wasn’t going to break the law, so in steps the C.I.A. But even the C.I.A. has its limits.

” (It’s worth noting that when reading between the lines of the newly released memos, it seems clear that it was contractors, not C.I.A. officers, who requested the use of these techniques.)“

I really have to wonder if that hits you the way it hits me. “Contractors” has almost become a dirty word to me. I realize that it isn’t wholly fair, but there you have it. From the merely venal to outright evil, various “contractors” keep showing up on the wrong side of various issues. Remember the janitors at Wal-Mart ? The Flight Service Station fiasco ? Blackwater ? Contractors.

Don Brown
April 24, 2009

Thursday, April 23, 2009

What in the World...

You may have noticed that there isn’t much aviation news these days. I take a look through my list of blogs (see the left side of the page) everyday. The only thing new on aviation (at the moment) is James Fallows’ continuing coverage of the “save” down at Marco Island/Ft. Meyers.

It was a great save but once you know about it, you can follow along on your own. (If you didn’t know about it, Mr. Fallows has the links to all the tapes.)

The cold, hard truth is that aviation is in a huge downturn (along with almost everything else) and there won’t be much news -- especially good new -- for some time. NATCA still doesn’t have a contract (963 days and counting) and everyone seems to waiting for a new Administrator before they seriously consider negotiating one. There’s nothing urgent about addressing a diminishing problem -- which, despite the best efforts to sell NextGen, is exactly where we find ourselves. Anytime there is a drop in aviation (think post 9/11) the delay problem (and the motivation to fix it) decreases. We in aviation know that a downturn is the perfect time to prepare for the inevitable upturn...but the public has other things on their minds. At least until a sufficient number of them get killed in an aviation accident...

In short, it’s the economy, stupid.

Speaking of the economy, Robert Reich gives the Obama Administration the grade of “F”. Well...after giving them an “A”. It’s interesting. Read it.

In case you were excited about the quarterly profits of the Big Banks (please tell me you weren’t), Paul Krugman will set you straight. He also touches on the one other subject that has been able to give the economy some competition for ink;

Let’s say this slowly: the Bush administration wanted to use 9/11 as a pretext to invade Iraq, even though Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. So it tortured people to make them confess to the nonexistent link.

There’s a word for this: it’s evil.

I don’t know where my readers stand on this issue but in my mind it is simple. Two wrongs don’t make a right. You can make this issue as complicated as you’d like (Lord knows it is) but the morality of it is simple. Torture is wrong. Even if you wouldn’t call it torture -- let’s call it abusive treatment -- it’s wrong. It was wrong before, it was wrong during the time of our worst fears and it will be wrong in the future.

If America wants the rest of the world to play by the rules...if America wants to hold itself up as the shining city upon a hill...if we want to look at ourselves in the mirror and hold our heads up -- we will have to face this issue. How we face it is going to say a lot about us as a nation. To ourselves. And to the rest of the world.

Don Brown
April 23, 2009

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Truth in Taxes

About a week ago, when the rebels without a clue were having their “tea parties”, I saw a statistic on CNN about comparative tax rates around the world. There were only two countries listed with lower tax rates than the United States -- Ireland and Iceland.

I haven’t been able to find the story on CNN but I did find some similar numbers on MSN.

Under the heading “Married, 2 kids” you have:

Ireland -- 8.1%

Iceland -- 11.0%

United States -- 11.9%

”In 2003, total federal state and local taxes in the United States were 24.2% of our gross domestic product, ranking among the lowest in the world, with only Mexico at 19.5% with a lower tax rate. “

Recent headlines ought to clue you into my thinking on the subject.

How Ireland became an economic basket-case

Iceland's Economic Ruin Provokes Voter Ire at Former Leaders

You get what you pay for. If you want to move to a City, County or State with lower taxes, you have choices . If you wanted to move to a country with lower Federal taxes, you don’t have many. And right now, you don’t have any good choices.

Here’s another thought. For most of the industrial world, their taxes pay for health care and pensions. Yours pay for aircraft carriers. 12 of them. That is more than the rest of the world combined.

Don Brown
April 21, 2009

Monday, April 20, 2009

Bullet Dodged

Government selling its infrastructure is like farmers eating their seed corn. It’s an act of desperation. Or I could call it something else -- unregulated greed.

Anyway, we (or should I say Chicago?) dodged the bullet on this one.

”A $2.5 billion first-of-its-kind deal to privatize a major U.S. airport has collapsed amid the global credit crunch, city officials said Monday.

Chicago officials said the deal to lease Midway Airport for 99 years fell apart because private investors could not raise the necessary money. “

AP has the full story.

Don Brown
April 21, 2009

Reach Out and Touch Someone

In an Apple iPod Touch and military way.

”Newsweek also reported that Pentagon specialists are writing applications for the iPod touch that could rapidly display video from unmanned aerial vehicles.“

It’s amazing what I can tie into aviation isn’t it ? You can read the short article here.

I guess this means that Iraq has better wireless service than where I live. I’d love to have an iPod Touch or iPhone. My son loves his iPod Touch and my techno-geek friend in town never tires of showing my how cool his iPhone is.

Don Brown
April 20, 2009

Financial Chicken Soup

My apologies for the lack of posts. Busy. Excuses. Busy. Onward.

This video is the most condensed version of clarity I’ve seen about the root cause of our financial crisis. The fact that you have to go to the “fake news” to get clarity speaks for itself. Watch. Learn.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Elizabeth Warren Pt. 2
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic CrisisPolitical Humor

This is the lesson. We know what is wrong. We know how to make it right. If you don’t see Congress reinstating understandable regulations, then don’t expect our economic situation to improve. Everything else -- bailouts, TARP, loans, restructuring -- is just so much economic crap. We need the regulations to keep out the riffraff and con men -- so that the honest businessman can succeed.

Don Brown
April 20, 2009

Friday, April 17, 2009

Why Don’t They Use ADS-B ?

After all, ADS-B is cheaper, right ?

Lockheed To Support Brazil Air Surveillance Radar

”Lockheed signed a $1.6 million contract with the Brazilian Air Force for support services for six long-range TPS-77 air surveillance radars Brazil uses to monitor airspace in the Amazon, Lockheed announced at the Latin America Aerospace and Defense conference.“

Remember, Hank Krakowski, COO of the FAA, said that “radar is going away”. I -- and the U.S. military -- say it isn’t. You’ll just pay for both systems.

You might want to start thinking of ADS-B in terms of the SST. We can build an SST. We just can’t make it economically viable. We can build an ADS-B system. I just question whether we need to or not. It won’t replace radar because it can’t fulfill the defense mission of radar. I also question the need to run airplanes closer together when we don’t have the runway capacity needed to make that useful.

Let me reiterate that I don’t necessarily think running airplanes closer together is a wise idea -- from a safety standpoint. Even with increased accuracy, cutting the distance between planes means cutting the reaction time available for when things go wrong.

While I have you thinking about the limits of technology, let me steer you to another aviation story.

174th flies over Yankee Stadium for home opener

”"We can put four airplanes over the top of maybe, arguably maybe the busiest air traffic control area in the world, on time, and be at that final note, looking great and flying in formation to help kick off the celebration of the opening of Yankee Stadium," Bradley said. “

Now, getting four F-16s over the top of a stadium on the final note of the National Anthem is a pretty interesting thought...but it was this little tidbit that got my attention.

”The mission was one of just a few more opportunities before the F-16 is phased out and the unmanned MQ-9 is phased in. The F-16 will take part in its final mission before next March.“

Just in case you are like me and don’t know what an MQ-9 is, it is one of these things.

And in case you think that is a Predator, think again. A Predator has a 119 hp piston engine. This thing has a 950 hp turboprop.

The thing I want you to think about, though, is that a turboprop is replacing a supersonic military jet. You might be tempted to think, in that the MQ-9 is a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), it is replacing a pilot. It isn’t. The pilot just stays on the ground to fly it. Just food for thought.

Don Brown
April 17, 2009

NPR Series

National Public Radio has a whole series on the National Airspace System this week. Take a look and listen in if you have the time.

Thanks to Harry for the point out.

Don Brown
April 17, 2009

Thursday, April 16, 2009

More on Marco Save

Aviation Week has more details on the King Air save down in Marco/Naples/Ft. Meyers I wrote about before. It’s worth the short time it takes to read and I won’t spoil the surprise.

Don Brown
April 16, 2009

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Nice Save at Marco Island

I don’t know if you’ve seen the news or not but the controllers working the Marco Island area of Florida from Miami Center, Fort Meyers Approach and the Tower controllers at RSW (Regional Southwest) had a nice “save” Sunday. You can read all about it (and listen to some audio) at The Naples Daily News. I’m not sure if I have all the different roles played straight or not so let’s say a significant number of the controllers involved were relatively-new hires in the FAA. It looks like they all passed this real-world test with flying colors.

It sounds like we’ll have an interesting time at the annual Archie League Awards this year. There are some really compelling details coming to light on this save.

Don Brown
April 14, 2009

Monday, April 13, 2009

Well, It Is Revolting

I was all set to get up this morning and write an editorial on the upcoming “Tea Parties”. It turns out I don’t need to. Paul Krugman has saved me the trouble. The political-dead body of the last Bush Administration isn’t even cold yet and already the Republican Party is back to its same old message (a tax cut cures everything) trotted out by the same old billionaires (Scaife, Olin , Koch, et al ). I can’t imagine how it all isn’t just this obvious to so many of my fellow Southerners;

“We trashed the world economy (and your 401K) while running up the national debt by giving billionaires bigger tax cuts than secretaries. Greed is NOT a sin. It is GOOD ! Give it another shot and let us show you. We CAN bail out the banks with $700 billion and NOT pay taxes. We CAN fight two wars and NOT raise taxes. Trust us.”

P.T. Barum would be proud.

Oh well. It’s a good thing I don’t have to write it. I’ve got to run a friend to the airport. He’s flying from the world’s busiest airport to the world’s second-busiest airport (ATL to ORD). In this:

Would anyone like to bet that if we bothered calling the airline before we left home (2 hours early) that we would be told that everything was running “on time” ? Gee...I wonder what the FAA’s web page says ?

Come on folks. Get the Flick.

Don Brown
April 13, 2009

Sunday, April 12, 2009

My Country

”The ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) wishes to underscore that the consistency of the detailed allegations provided separately by each of the fourteen adds particular weight to the information provided below.

The general term “ill-treatment” has been used throughout the following section, however, it should in no way be understood as minimising the severity of the conditions and treatment to which the detainees were subjected. Indeed, as outlined in Section 4 below, and as concluded by this report, the ICRC clearly considers that the allegations of the fourteen include descriptions of treatment and interrogation techniques—singly or in combination—that amounted to torture and/or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. “

Right or wrong, it’s still my country. This was wrong. No excuses. You can read the report from the ICRC (a small .pdf file) but it won’t change the morality of the situation. The United States of America has been convincingly accused of torturing other human beings.

The captive’s evil is not the question. Ours is.

(Thanks to the Earth-bound Misfit for calling attention to this matter.)

Don Brown
April 12, 2009

Friday, April 10, 2009

Big “Duh” Again

Surely, no one is surprised ?

Airlines post best on-time rates since 2002

”One possible reason for the improved performance is that the 19 carriers operated 11 percent fewer flights a day than in February 2008, the result of drastic cutbacks in capacity. “

Ya think ? Gee, I bet the guys with the best on-time records don’t do much flying at hub airports.

”Leading the group in February was Hawaiian Airlines Inc. with 91.2 percent of flights arriving on time, followed by Dallas-based Southwest Airlines Co. at 88.3 percent. At the bottom was Alaska Airlines Inc. at 76.3 percent. “

Who’d a thunk it ? But wait, there is something unique to be found.

”The Air Transport Association applauded the numbers but urged the federal government to use the lull in operations to improve the nation's air traffic control system. “

I never thought I’d see the day that the ATA and I agreed on anything. Of course, they blow it in the next paragraph.

"We have a window of opportunity to accelerate system modernization during this period of slackening demand," ATA president and chief executive James May said. "A failure to act now will exact a tremendous cost, increasing delays in just a few years."

Sigh. And when they go back to over scheduling the airports it will be ATC’s fault all over again, right ? Big duh.

On a personal note, sorry things have been so slow this week. Hopefully I’ll get back to a more regular schedule after Easter. Holy Week is a busy week for a retired guy.

Don Brown
April 10, 2009
Good Friday

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Trivia Note

How many of you watching Stephen Colbert last night remembered that Queen Noor is Najeeb Halaby’s daughter ?

Don Brown
April 8, 2009

The Reason

My regular readers know I spend a lot of time talking about runway capacity and slots. “Slots” is kind of a catchall for regulating the number of aircraft scheduled to use an airport. It’s really a simple concept and only gets confusing when you start adding in weather, runway configurations, the number of runways and a few other factors. But the underlying concept remains simple -- only one airplane can use a runway at any one time and that time is roughly one minute. One minute to land. One minute to take off. Sixty airplanes an hour, per runway. Thirty arrivals. Thirty departures. The math is inescapable.

As simple as that concept is, it might make you wonder why so many people in the aviation industry have such a hard time understanding it. They really are bright people. So what’s the problem ? To quote Upton Sinclair;

” It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.“

If I haven’t made it clear before, an article I stumbled on today should make it crystal clear.

”Southwest (NYSE: LUV) is able to provide the New York City service because it bid $7.5 million to win the rights to ATA Airlines’ 14 slots at LaGuardia last year. “

For those that don’t like math any more than I do, that would be $535,714 per slot. I don’t know if they bid those slots by month, year, decade or what, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out we’re talking serious money. And if the thought hasn’t hit you...if they’re willing to pay that much, imagine how much they must be making.

So, when I say LGA (LaGuardia) should be restricted to 36 arrivals per hour and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey (or the FAA, or the airlines, or a Congressman) says 44 -- that becomes a $4 million dollar (give or take $285,000) question. Gettin’ the Flick ?

Don Brown
April 8, 2009

Monday, April 06, 2009

iPhones, Air Traffic Control and iCandy

I thought of that “iCandy” all by myself. (I actually wrote it out to start with -- “eye candy”.) Clever huh ? What do you want to bet if I do an internet search on it I’ll find out a thousand people have already thought of it ?

When I wake up every morning, one of the first things I do is check Google News. As useful as I find this service, it is still a computer program -- and that makes it dumb. While I’m searching for news stories on air traffic control, the program that is Google News is searching for the words “air traffic control”. It isn’t the same thing.

That’s how I found the new app for the iPhone -- FlightControl. That’s interesting. And I’m far enough into retirement that I consider it a harmless, amusing bug in the programming. But imagine if I wasn’t retired. Imagine I was still a controller -- at work -- looking for information on Delta Airlines flight 40 (DA40) and the computer thought I was looking for a DA40 ? Do you think I would be amused ? Would you be amused if the computer wasted 10 seconds of the 60 seconds you have to save an airplane full of people with useless information ?

It’s amazing how I can still pump up my blood pressure this far into retirement. Let’s talk of more lighthearted things. Can you imagine how many gear heads have wandered onto this blog entry because it has “iPhone” in the title ? I tried to appease them by including the link above to a new application but they’re iPhone people. They probably read it days ago. I mean, that’s what an iPhone is all about, right ? All computing, all the time ? Maybe this will make them happy. I just happened to stumble across this bit of information in the blizzard of information that Google Analytics provides about my blog. The 3rd most popular operating system used to view my blog -- behind Windows and MacIntosh -- is the one running the iPhone. 4th is Linux. And 5th is the iPod. That really surprised me. Somehow, I bet it didn’t surprise the computer people at all.

Can you see where all this is heading or do I just sound like I’m rambling ? I always wonder about that. I guess every writer does. How far can you skip down the winding path before readers long for the straight-as-an-arrow highway to the point ?

Okay. Here it is. Unless you’re a controller you don’t know anything more about air traffic control than I know about computers. And that isn’t nearly enough. I can’t design a computer program much less an iPhone. The folks that can do those things can’t control air traffic. I’m not saying they don’t have the capacity to become air traffic controllers -- they don’t have the knowledge. They don’t have any idea what a DA40 can do, much less what kind of pilot flies it or the fact that Delta Airlines flight 40 is actually coded DAL40.

The only people that have that knowledge are air traffic controllers. The only people that know the information that air traffic controllers need to know -- what they need and how they need it presented -- are air traffic controllers. And in case you haven’t noticed, there’s a slight problem with those two things -- knowledge and air traffic controllers. If you haven’t been following along as the FAA (under Marion Blakey) decimated the controller profession -- the institutional knowledge -- run over to the FAA Follies and take a look. Don’t read the story (well, you can if you want. It is a good one) -- but read the comments section. Notice how the contracting out of the lower level Towers is coming back to haunt the FAA. The facility that has 12 trainees and only 11 controllers to train them. Please take note of the one saying that it is 1981 all over again. And try to remember that I warned you.

The push is on to enrich the contractors with NextGen. No one denies the ATC system needs updating. That is always true. If you could wave a magic wand and make all the NextGen dreams come true tomorrow, in a year we would be saying that the ATC system needs updating. And it would be true. Without the people to operate it, though, any system is just so much eye candy.

Don Brown
April 6, 2009

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Our Place in History

History isn’t written in a day. Like a movie script, it can go through numerous rewrites. To carry the analogy even further, it can even be remade after many years.

These are my thoughts after reading yet another story where the PATCO strike was cited as a turning point in our history. This time it was in an article from David Broder in The Washington Post.

Obama's Muscle Moment

In my early 20s at the time, I had no idea that the PATCO strike would be a defining moment in our history. Even as an air traffic controller, I didn’t grasp its full impact. I knew it was a defining event in the profession. That was easy to understand. It only dawned on me slowly that it was such a significant event in U.S. history. I still can’t imagine that it will retain much significance in the long run -- but who knows ?

Anyway, Mr. Broder compares President Obama’s termination of Richard Wagoner -- CEO of General Motors -- with Reagan’s firing of PATCO.

”It was a catastrophe for organized labor because it stiffened the resistance of many private employers to unionization. But for Reagan it was all benefit. He had always been well liked. But he had never been feared -- until he broke the PATCO strike. From that point on, Democrats and Republicans alike thought twice about challenging him.

It is possible, I think, that ousting Wagoner and the GM directors will have a similar effect for Obama -- but only if he enforces his other deadlines and conditions. “

I’m sure there are more than a few CEOs mulling over those implications right now. If they are smart, there are 14,000 air traffic controllers thinking long and hard about it. Here’s a really old piece of advice: Be careful what you wish for.

NATCA has been beating the drum that they want to “return to the bargaining table.” They have a perfectly valid point that their previous contract was to remain in force until a new one was negotiated. Ex-FAA Administrator Blakey will be judged for breaking that contract. President George W. Bush will take a hit for letting Blakey break the word of the U.S. Government. But considering what else history has in store for him, he’s probably not losing much sleep over it.

Back to the controllers. NATCA is asking to “return to the bargaining table” during the worst economic crisis since the Depression and negotiate with a guy that just fired the CEO of GM. Furthermore, it is doing so with a membership that is highly fractured, inexperienced and thoroughly demoralized. Good luck with that NATCA.

For the new controllers out there, now is the time to start learning and observing. There are fundamental truths in the profession of air traffic control. First, the union is not in control of the workforce. You are a prime example of that. If the FAA wants to hire ex-military controllers to foster a militaristic atmosphere, there isn’t much you can do about it. Likewise, if they want to hire college students to groom for management, there isn’t much you can do about it.

Well, actually there is but you run up against another truth. Thinking of air traffic control in terms of a profession -- with a long-term view -- is tough for guys with such short careers. Face it. When you’re young you don’t care. When you’re middle-aged, you’re too busy (work and family) and when you’re old...well, you’re no longer a controller. The obvious solution is that you’ll have to put somebody with a longer view in charge and that means someone that isn’t a controller. We all know the odds of that happening are slim. You might want to look at pro sports for a model. They have the same problems. Incredibly talented individuals that have very short careers. A medical problem and you’re out. And at least in some sense, lose the support of the “fans” and you’re done.

If you don’t learn anything else from me you can take that last point to the bank. I’ve said it a dozen different ways, a dozen different times. A controller’s best interest is in protecting the Public’s best interest. It is a duty you should rank above the FAA and your coworkers. It isn’t always clear and it is rarely easy. But if you’re ever in any doubt about what course to follow -- and you will be -- follow that one. It’s as clear as “Safety Above All”. You’re a public employee, first and foremost. Keep that first and everything else will fall into place.

Don Brown
April 4, 2009

Thursday, April 02, 2009

FAA History Lesson -- April 2 (2009)

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

”Apr 2, 1971: The Administrator gave air traffic control facilities increased flexibility in granting pilot routing and altitude requests for all types of aircraft. Conditions permitting, controllers were empowered
to: relax the requirements for preferential routings; assign the most economical altitudes; discontinue standard instrument departures; and honor requests for direct radar vectors. These relaxed procedures were
made possible by a temporary decline in air traffic during fiscal 1971 (the first such decline since fiscal 1961), which coincided with a general slowdown in the U.S. economy. “

The more things change -- the more they stay the same.

Don Brown
April 2, 2009

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

NextGen vs. Nobody

A good friend of mine at Atlanta Center once called me Don the Baptist. I was the lone voice, crying in the wilderness, on several issues. It seems to be the story of my life. Take NextGen for example.

Do you see anyone standing in the way of NextGen ? Besides me ? And, if the truth be known, when it comes right down to it, I don’t really care. Except for one tiny little point. I don’t like liars.

Seriously. If we want to switch over to an all-GPS navigation system (which we won’t), I don’t care. As long as the people paying for it (that would be the taxpayers) understand that they will have to finance a backup system (probably eLORAN or a minimum number of VORs) too. As long as they understand that a solar storm could knock out the whole system while they’re at 33,000 feet in a thin metal tube, I’m good with that.

I don’t care if the FAA wants to use ADS-B for it’s primary surveillance system. As long as the public understands that they’ll have to pay for the radar surveillance system for the “non-participatory” aircraft too, I can live with it. If they don’t mind having a 500 mph loose cannon (or terrorist) running around in the air while they’re flying, I don’t mind. I don’t fly enough to worry about it.

If you’re wondering what set me off about NextGen today, it was this:


I was reading the morning news and I ran across a new group -- The National Alliance to Advance NextGen . I followed the trail back to the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. I would be willing to bet there is someone in the background pulling their strings but that is as far back as I can trace it.

Anyway, down towards the bottom of the press release -- after they’ve quoted everybody and their brother (except an air traffic controller) -- they throw in this statement.

”NextGen will reduce air traffic congestion by utilizing satellite communication technology to inform air traffic controllers and pilots of the exact location of aircraft.“

Not in New York it won’t. It might over the Atlantic Ocean. But when they get to New York, the runways will still be as crowded as ever and NextGen will not solve that problem. It’s simple. There is a lot of room for more airplanes in the air. There isn’t on the ground and that is where it counts. I wonder why there is no National Alliance to Build More Runways in New York ? I’m guessing that might be within the Port Authority’s...uh...authority.

But getting back to my point; Who is standing in the way of NextGen ? A nobody like me ? That certainly isn’t holding it up. The controllers can’t stop it (even if they wanted to, which they don’t.) They couldn’t stop “Free Flight”. As a matter of fact, they caved in on that one. I was there when it happened. After all, they can’t even get a contract. So what’s with all the NextGen cheerleading when no one is on the opposing side ?

I mean really, if you take a look at that list of “Members of the Alliance” you see some really big names. ATA, NATA, Air Travelers Association, Cargo Airline Association and on and on. It makes you wonder why they included the Timberman Local #1536. There are only four Google entries for that one and two of them were for the “Alliance”. Hey, I’m really trying to be fair, there are only eight hits on Google for “Timberman Local” -- without the #1536. I didn’t bother going that far with the "Queens Air Services Development Offices". I figure they’re a government outfit and they do what they’re told. I did find it interesting that they too only have four entries on Google. And yes, two of those were generated by the Port Authority’s “Alliance”. It would probably help if the Port Authority would learn to spell.

Queens Air Services Development Office (ASDO)

”ASDO is a not-for-profit organization that brings together aviation industry buyers with local businesses. This unique program, which is funded by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey...“

Don Brown
April 1, 2009