Thursday, February 20, 2014

Post-PATCO FAA 2.0

Let's step back and take a look at the proverbial Big Picture shall we? The FAA has put out the word: They are hiring a massive number of new controller trainees. No experience required. What does this say about America?

In that I don't write about these matters much anymore -- not to mention there will be a large new audience of controller wanna-bes -- let me reintroduce myself. I'm a retired controller that worked at Atlanta Center for 25 years. More precisely for this conversation, I was in the second class to train at the FAA Academy after the PATCO strike of 1981. I am 55 years old. I was hired just after I had turned 23. I am not important. The arithmetic you can do with those numbers is.

If I was still working, I would be forced to retire this year -- before I turn 56 -- as required by U.S. law. Conclusion: The FAA has waited until the very last second to replace the controllers hired after the PATCO strike. This, of course, hasn't been a sharp-edged event. Many controllers (like me) retired when they became eligible. The FAA has been hiring some replacements for nearly a decade. But this latest job announcement is different. This time, the FAA is back to hiring people like they did when I was hired. The job qualifications are minimal and the FAA says they will be hiring 10,000 people over a number of years.

The rest of what follows is conjecture on my part. It's what these moves by the FAA say to me. Some of my assumptions may be wrong. Even more will be argued with and/or denied. Take my opinion for what it's worth. Just keep in mind it is free.

1) Humans Win

The FAA has failed to replace the human controller. Again. It isn't for lack of trying. I suspect that the timing of this massive hiring isn't only about the PATCO strike (although it certainly influences it) but it's just as much about the failure of technology. Specifically, NextGen. You can go back into this blog's archives and read all the rants you would ever care to read about NextGen. The fact is, it isn't here. And the FAA is out of time. It has to replace the humans with machines or replace them with other humans. The FAA is folding its hand. Humans win.

2) Controllers Win

The management of the FAA doesn't really like controllers. To be honest, there's not much about us to like. We are supremely confident as a group. And if you manage to actually become a controller, you know you have done something that few people on this planet can do. If you can do it at one of the "big houses"...well, our egos and youth can make us pretty insufferable. And the money you can earn doesn't endear you to anyone except those trying to get you to spend it on them. So, the FAA would really like to replace controllers. In more ways than one. The problem is, they can't. Whatever magic it is that controllers are born with is hard to automate. And in an industry that is part of "the commanding heights", that makes controllers very valuable. Controllers win.

3) Workers Win

Well....I'm not as confident about this one. Perhaps I should say "Workers Can Win". If controllers and NATCA play their cards right, this could be a real shot in the arm for workers. Since I've retired, I've become involved in local (county level) politics and that means I have had to think about how to make a local economy work. What I have noticed is that the initial driver of the economy is always the government. It's government money -- usually government payrolls -- that make the world go round. I know you've been told it's businesses but it isn't (unless that business is a farmer.) Take Social Security out of your county and see what happens to the grocery store. Take the payroll for teachers, bus drivers and administration of the schools out and see what happens to your local "I-built-this-with-my-own-two-hands" business owner. (Sorry, I'm drifting...)

These jobs represent a way for young people to move up into the middle class, based purely on talent. It was another failure of the College Training Initiative program in that it required you to have the financial resources to go to college. Having the ability to control air traffic has absolutely nothing to do with college and it was wrong of the FAA to ever require it. (Hopefully, this is the last we'll see of this scam.) The conclusion I draw from this is that the FAA has given up (for the moment) on their quest to make controllers into airspace "managers" (you know, the guys that need college) and resigned themselves to the fact that they are going to need some air traffic controllers. Again.

Those controllers (young people by requirement) will need cars, houses and food. They will buy them. If they are paid as well as they have been in the past, they will buy lots of them. If anybody wanted to study a small-scale economy, the local towns around Air Route Traffic Control Centers would provide some interesting cases.

Here's an opportunity to reestablish the social contract between the American government and its workers: You won't get rich but you will have steady employment with solid benefits. You will become a member of the middle class. All that is required of you is talent, 8 hours a day and honesty. That contract has been frayed in the last decade if not torn to pieces in many instances. Teachers are the first example that comes to mind. They have been furloughed and fired on too many occasions. With NATCA's organizational muscle, controllers could be the example on how to make this social contract work. Again.

I'll start working on an ending here but I hope you'll keep thinking about the subject. I'd dare say this opportunity would not have come about in a Republican Administration. And there's nothing to stop a future Republican Administration from trying to reverse it. Make hay while the sun shines. Take this opportunity and make it work. Realize that you're involved in something much bigger than yourself. I know that's a lot to ask of a 20-something-year-old, but so is juggling a couple of dozen airplanes in the sky. I believe in Government. I believe in controllers. And I believe in you.

Don Brown
February 20, 2014


Vannevar said...

I believe I agree. Well done, same as always.

Don Brown said...

Thank you, my friend.


Roger D. Parish said...

Next-to-last paragraph: "Teachers are the first example that comes to mind. The have been furloughed and fired on too many occasions."

"The have" should be "They have".

Other than that, good post.

Laurie B. said...

My son decided to become an air traffic controller prior to the implementation of the CTI program. During his senior year of working on his degree in aviation management, the FAA decided to require the certificate. The school he was attending was not one of the 31 accredited schools so he had to spend another year at another university to get the the tune of an additional $38,000 in loans for tuition plus a year of rent. He graduated from that program with a 4.0 and scored a 100 on the ATC test. Then the government sequestered all the air traffic control programs. Now they've told him that the certificate means nothing and his test score has been thrown out. Today he was informed that he doesn't meet any of the qualifications. So, we played by the rules, did well, and find out that it was for naught. They're even saying you don't need a high school diploma. Don't we want trained, qualified people juggling all those planes in the air? They're even turning down people with military training and individuals with 10 years of ATC experience. Are we just looking to give people who didn't give a damn about their education a job? Seems like we're telling the youth of America that education means nothing. Yep, I'm a little perturbed.

Tango Whiskey said...

Nice article. The last line had me thinking perhaps your name is Don Williams instead of Don Brown!

Don Brown said...

Thanks Roger. I don't know how your post slipped by me for so long. Too much junk in my email box I guess. I've written too many letter to politicians and they all send mail. :(


Don Brown said...

Thanks TW. I always liked that guy. :)