Using Judgment

This post will require you to use your powers of judgment carefully. The points I’d like to make are subtle but, I believe, important.

The Chicago Sun-Times ran a story today (September 30, 2007) about a mid-air collision that occurred 7 years ago.

Judge clears Collins in deadly air crash

I’d be the last to supplant the NTSB’s judgment with that of a judge, in assigning the cause of an aviation accident. However, there are a couple of things worth noting in that article.

”Because of federal immunity from lawsuits, though, the most Collins' widow, Christine, and the other victims' families can share is the $1 million insurance policy of Midwest Air Traffic Control Services, said Christine Collins' attorney Bob Clifford. “

Midwest Air Traffic Control Services runs the privatized Air Traffic Control Tower at Waukegan, Illinois (UGN.) According to the NTSB, “UGN handles approximately 100,000 aircraft operations per year. Although operations are predominantly general aviation, they also range from flight training, generated both locally and from other airports, to high-performance corporate jet operations. The U.S. Government contracts with Midwest to run the Tower." I first heard that operators in the Federal Contract Tower program were only required to carry a $ 1 million dollar insurance policy years and years ago. The guy telling me about it couldn’t believe it and neither could I. Even the cheapest of the “ high-performance corporate jets” cost more than a million dollars. This accident took three lives. I won’t comment on how much a life is worth.

”The air traffic controller -- who had gone seven hours without a break, in violation of FAA rules -- ... “

In that this accident occurred at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, that makes it obvious the controller had worked all day without a break. I didn’t see this fact mentioned in the NTSB report on the accident, which I find very curious. I did find a couple of other facts in the NTSB report though.

” The LC (Local Controller) has served as the tower manager since October 1993. “

”UGN ATCT operates from 0600 to 2000 local time, year round. Four controllers and a tower manager, who works on an operational schedule similar to the controllers, staff the tower. The contractor also provides "rovers," who are controllers certified at more than one facility that can fill in as needed.“

It doesn’t take long to figure out that staffing is minimal, at best.

There’s another set of facts you might want to know. Also from the NTSB report:

”UGN ATCT was established in 1989 as a Level 1 tower. The FAA funded the initial construction and equipment. In 1994, under the Federal Contract Tower Program, a private contractor, Midwest Air Traffic Control Services, was awarded the bid to operate the tower and provide controller and supervisory staffing. The FAA retains ownership of the facilities and equipment and conducts controller certification.“

It sounds much the same as the Fulton Country ATC Tower in Atlanta, GA. The FAA built a new Tower for the Olympics (the previous Tower was around 40 years old) and then promptly contracted it out as soon as the Olympics left town.

I worked with a different Contract Tower when I was a controller. I even went to visit that Tower a couple of times. Decent people, working alone, doing the best they could with what they had. There was one incident that did stick with me though. There had been a possible error and the tape recordings of the Tower (all ATC transmissions are recorded) weren’t available. The recorder had malfunctioned. The recorder was fixed, and lo and behold, there was another incident very shortly thereafter (I think it was the same day.). The tape recorder malfunctioned on that incident too.

It’s taken as a given among controllers that if a contract controller reports an operational error, he’ll get fired. It’s hard to prove that without evidence. If an FAA controller doesn’t report an error, we know the FAA will take disciplinary action. I know a supervisor that got a three day suspension for failing to report an error. Many proponents of contracting like to point to an Inspector General report that said contract Towers are as safe -- if not safer -- than FAA Towers. Take it for what it’s worth. Use your judgment. One guy might get fired if he reports an error. The other guy might get fired if he doesn’t report an error. What do you think the safety statistics would show ?

Minimal staffing, minimal insurance, minimal accountability. You get what you pay for. You might want to consider that if you live under an area where airplanes fly. And in that the FAA has contracted out the Flight Services Stations, it isn’t just areas around contract Towers, it’s everywhere.

”Collins' plane crashed onto the roof of Midwestern Medical Center in Zion, injuring people there and killing him and his passenger, Herman Luscher. Student pilot Sharon Hock's plane crashed into the street, killing her. “

It could be worse. You could live in Iraq and have to deal with our contractors over there.

Don Brown
September 30, 2007


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