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

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