Posts Tagged “ATC”

I know I haven’t written in awhile and I really don’t have much time now, but I couldn’t let this one pass me by.   In February, 2008, I wrote a post about the FAA and their plans to install tower simulators to reduce controller training time.  Almost 2 years ago.

Today I see this article.  First, it’s incorrect when it states the average air traffic controller makes $150,000.  There’s a bid that closes tomorrow at Pittsburgh Air Traffic Control Tower (ATCT) for a Support Manager.  Low end of that pay is $143,000.  It’s a MSS-3 position, which is THREE levels above the “average” controller.  Pittsburgh ATCT is an ATC-10.  Highest level is an ATC-12; lowest is an ATC-5.  You do the math.

The article states, “There are thirteen simulators in place currently.  Nine more will be activated in the next six months, but it comes with a big price tag: between $600,000 and $700,000 each.”  So 24 simulators by the end of June, 2010.  In February, 2008, Mr. Trinka of the FAA said, “An additional 24 simulators are being installed over the next 18 months at busy Class B towers including New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, Washington Reagan National, Dallas Fort-Worth, and Atlanta.”

I’ll help with this math.  20 months ago, the FAA claimed they were going to have 24 simulators installed by what should’ve been 2 months ago.  Now they’re claiming that the original 24 simulators will now be installed 8 months later than originally planned.  We’re only talking 24 installations and they’re projecting to be 30% later that what they planned.  So, the first article pretty much has the FAA on a schedule of installing .91 simulators a month.  The actual completed work averaged about .41 of a simulator installed per month (remember, they already had 4 installed in February, 2008).  And now they’re saying they’re going to install almost 2 simulators per month to meet their new timeline.  Anyone else a bit skeptical that they’ll meet that deadline?

NextGen looks like it’ll be a long time coming, people, especially if they don’t start including NATCA on the front end.

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Sadly, Todd W. also recently took down his blog, Vanity Fair Musings. For all you conspiracy theorists, it sounds like he was just tired and ready to move on for a bit. Hope he’ll be back, even if it’s just every once in awhile. Don Brown wrote about it here.

For all of you who have been searching for The Main Bang in the last couple weeks (thanks for the blog hits, too!), I’m happy to announce John is back.

Hope to find some time to write some more this week. We’ll see.

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I’ve seen some scary things in my air traffic control career. Some caused by a mistake by an air traffic controller, some caused by a mistake by a pilot or vehicle operator, some caused by bad FAA procedures and some just seemed to happen just because the moon was full. Most long-time controllers have hair-raising stories they can tell. Unfortunately, not all of the stories have a happy ending.

If a controller relates one of these events, the listener can usually tell early on how it ended up long before they’ve finished, just by how the story is told. Lots of hand gestures, obvious facial expressions, and vocal, snippy observations equates to everyone lived. A quiet tone, body language controlled and tight, and eyes that don’t want to look into yours equates to us reliving moments when others lost their lives despite our best efforts.

Why do I bring this up? NATCA’s Archie League Awards were last week. Take a read through. Some damned fine work. In some of these instances, the controllers did not follow the rules as written. They did what they could within the rules; then, if necessary, stepped out of the box to do whatever they could to try to ensure a happy ending. In my initial training as an air traffic controller, that’s what I was taught to do – when there’s an emergency situation, you do anything and everything you can think of to give the people in the aircraft the best possible chance of surviving. And that’s how I’ve always operated. Experienced controllers have an excellent sense of when it’s vitally important to throw the rulebook out the window and do what’s necessary.

This year’s awards have generated a lot of discussion on our internal union bulletin board. You see, the FAA has changed their policies to a punitive atmosphere for not strictly following the rules. You have an error, well, let’s see about suspending you without pay. And let’s take away what would’ve been your cost-of-living raise before they imposed their work rules in 2006. Oh, and you’re now ineligible for a “bonus” as well. Let’s take your best efforts during an emergency and punish you for them if the ending is less than perfect.

The point was accurately brought up that if any of those situations had had a different ending, those controllers that were awarded by NATCA would instead be facing discipline for stepping outside of the box and not strictly following the rules, even if no other option was available to the controller to ensure a happy ending. Instead of being commended for taking a calculated risk that had an equal or better chance of ensuring safety than the rulebook, they could’ve been faced with losing their jobs.

The FAA has succeeded in their purported culture change – they’ve created work environments where a great deal of long-time, experienced, dedicated controllers will no longer seriously consider stepping outside the box in fear of discipline and retaliation. Where the rules mean more than safety. And all those new trainees coming in now are being trained in this punitive atmosphere…and will learn early on not to take the risks, even when necessary.

And that scares me more than anything else the Agency has done thus far with their Imposed Work Rules.

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One of the nicest things about aviation and air traffic control is that it’s a relatively small community. You learn early who shares similar ideas on safety, who’ll fight for the safety of the system, and you are lucky enough to be surrounded by those who are committed to safety. One of those individuals is Don Brown, retired controller. Don’s written some great stuff over the years, for NATCA, for AvWeb, and now for himself on his own blog, Get the Flick. Don and I may not always agree (usually on terminal vs. center viewpoints on what constitutes safe), but he’s one fantastic stand-up-and-be-counted individual with a level head on his shoulders. Don’s recent blog “Woof!” let me know there’s another blog out there worth checking out – JurassicBark. Thanks, Don.

Don has had a few more than his usual well-worth-reading blogs lately; check out Air Traffic Safety vs. Capacity, So Reason-able, and Think Tank Thunk….in that order. His retirement has obviously given him some time to develop regular sleep habits (something a career in ATC is not famous for) that is clicking those synapses and churning out some exceptional thoughts. From a terminal controller’s stance, his logic applying the basics of “physics” on the runways is spot on.

BTW, Don, I agree with you wholeheartedly about the usage of strips in the ATC environment! I always have. Wink

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I was catching up on the posts on NATCAnet this afternoon and a couple things caught my attention.

First is the article on Avweb about controller staffing. (You might have to register an account to read the full article.) Jim Trinka, the FAA’s director of technical training and development, made the claim that “new controllers are becoming fully qualified in half the time it took to do so just a few years ago…thanks to simulators. It now takes 2.6 years to fully qualify an en route controller and 1.4 years for a terminal area controller.”

What a crock. Under ideal conditions, simulators MAY help reduce the training time some, but by half – not a chance. Training today in the Agency is not ideal, not by any stretch of the imagination.

More from the article: “The FAA has used tower simulators in Chicago, Miami, Phoenix and Ontario, California, since 2006.” So, even though Mr. Trinka made a blanket statement that sounds like controller certification nationwide is reduced, he must only mean those four towers. Funny, no mention of what center simulators are installed. He must mean the DYSIM labs that they’ve been using for years.

Okay, genius, tower simulators since 2006. Doesn’t say when in 2006, so we’ll split the difference and say June, 2006. It’s now early 2008, a little over a year and a half later. According to Mr. Trinka, 1.4 years to train those terminal types. So Chicago O’Hare should be just fine on staffing, right? Check out NATCA’s press release last month, and I quote, “There are only 46 fully certified controllers at O’Hare Tower. That is 25 short of what is needed, not to mention what will be needed to staff a second tower as part of the O’Hare Modernization Phase 1.” So, O’Hare is down about 30% on their staffing, but they’ve had a simulator that’ll supposedly get those trainees certified in half the time. What’s wrong with this picture?

Mr. Trinka also says “An additional 24 simulators are being installed over the next 18 months at busy Class B towers including New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, Washington Reagan National, Dallas Fort-Worth, and Atlanta.” Even assuming that all 24 simulators get installed by the end of this year, the FAA can hire and retain the bodies that quickly and Mr. Trinka’s limited data pool is correct (huge assumptions, I know), we’re still talking about 2.5 years before those busy Class B towers see any real relief. That’s late summer 2010, if anyone needs help with the math.

But there was another post on NATCAnet that also caught my eye. It seems the Agency is starting to use our newbies as trainers themselves. Certified 6 months on a position, take the on-the-job-instructor (OJTI) course and starting training others on those positions. I mean absolutely no disrespect to our newbies or their skills, but the plain and simple truth is that experience is what’ll keep you out of trouble training others and 6 months isn’t nearly enough experience with the volume of traffic we’re running nowadays nationwide.

So. if I apply a little logic using those two bits of information, I come up with this:

The FAA claims that their whiz-bang technology will begin reducing the training time at 30 facilities nationwide (we have over 300 facilities, by the way) no later than October, 2009. (Anyone with any experience dealing with the Agency’s deployment of any technology knows that installation in 30 facilities in 18 months probably is a pipedream.) Yet, those same trainees who are supposedly getting that fast-track training are now training others before they’re completely certified. Guess what, people? If the trainee is training someone else, they CAN NOT get training themselves on the other positions they’ve got left to go before they’re facility-certified. So, in effect, the Agency is cancelling out any benefits we might see from simulators and most likely is now INCREASING the time to certify for our newbies.

The Agency has dug themselves a hole and it’s getting deeper incredibly fast, folks.

As a free service to the flying public, I’m including a link to Amtrak. Just something to think about.

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