Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The “Illusion of Progress”



As I told you yesterday, I have more comments on the NPR story about air traffic control. I went back to check on my information regarding trainees at New York Tracon (aka N90) and for once, my memory is correct. No new trainee (a raw recruit without any ATC experience) has checked out at N90 since September of 2006. That information was accurate as of a month or two ago. In addition, during that same time frame, 40 air traffic controllers have retired or quit at N90.

In case you didn’t remember, New York Tracon (N90) is special for a few other reasons. First, it is historically a hotbed of union activity. Because it is such, the Bush Administration went after the controllers there with a vengeance. It started with the “New York 11” getting fired and it hasn’t stopped since.

That brings me to my main point. Mr. Conan and Ms. Laskas both get the point the controller that called in was trying to make -- ATC is the job controllers love to hate. Controllers love what they do. They just hate who the do it for -- the FAA.

Despite this, Mr. Conan and Ms. Laskas both are drawn to that distractingly shiny object called technology. We all seem to be trapped in the thought that technology will make things better. It might even replace people -- even controllers. It won’t. It can’t. When humans are involved in life and death decisions the only entity that can make those decisions are other humans. Pick any analogy you would like. I’ll pick unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). We are a whole lot closer to replacing pilots than we are to replacing controllers. We have UAVs. We don’t have unmanned air traffic control. But our language trips us up. UAVs aren’t “unmanned”. There is a pilot sitting in front of a computer screen somewhere telling the plane what to do. Even if we could eliminate these “grounded pilots” (and we can) we wouldn’t be eliminating the human decision maker. We would just be replacing a pilot with a computer programmer. Somewhere, somehow -- some body is making the decisions.

Add to that thought, a concrete runway has a finite capacity. We can improve the technology that will allow us to use that runway. With better technology we could (theoretically) get the arrivals rates in bad weather up close to the arrivals rates in good weather. Then what ? Where does the extra capacity we will surely want above that limit come from ? We can make cars that will go 200+ miles per hour. Why are we still driving around at 55 mph ? We can make an SST. Why don’t we ? The answer is the same to all the questions. It’s possible. It just isn’t practical. I’ll stop beating this dead horse -- for now.

The pilot that called in provided another distraction. The reason we don’t have 60-year-old controllers is the same reason we don’t have 60-year-olds winning the Masters. I’ve talked about this before, so I’ll limit myself to two words -- bad idea.

Out of this whole segment on the radio, the phrase that grabbed my attention was the phrase I used for the title of this post -- “the illusion of progress”. Is that what we are after ? Is that what is important ? If so, I don’t get it. I’d much rather face the reality. But maybe that’s just me.

Don Brown
May 20, 2009

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