Posts Tagged “FAA”

About 15 years ago, I knew a NATCAvist named Billy Bob. If you have to know his last name to remember him, you just didn’t know Billy Bob. Those were the days when NATCAvists contacted each other via pager (remember gang pages?), telephone, fax and snail mail. Cell phones weren’t widely prevalent yet; we were just coming out of the thankfully-short bag/car phone era. It wasn’t unusual for us to leave a page saying “I’m working tonight, can I call you about midnight your time?” And the other to leave a page responding, “Whatever works for you, bro.”

I needed info from Billy Bob for one thing or another and we hit it off immediately and became fast friends. I probably didn’t see him in person more than a handful of times before his death, but we sure burned up telephone minutes. We’d talk about NATCA, complain about the FAA, discuss our lives and sometimes talk about nothing much at all. Billy Bob was one of those people who could surprise a belly laugh out of me fairly frequently.

I know my husband would’ve liked him and my kids would’ve liked to have an Uncle Billy Bob and stomp around in his cowboy boots. They never got the chance to meet him; he died far too young. Part of me is ashamed to say I don’t remember a lot of specifics of most of our long-distance conversations, but whenever I think of him, I smile. Looking back, I’d say Billy Bob was a junkyard dog: fiercely protective and loyal to those he cared about and mean as the dickens to those he felt threatened them. Maybe I could’ve come up with a gentler comparison, but I imagine he’s in his version of heaven right now, drink in hand, kicked back, laughingly shaking his head, saying “yeah, that fits, sister.”

I started thinking a lot about him because of these posts (one, two, three) by Praxis Foundation. I don’t know who Praxis is, but I’ve added him or her to my RSS feeds and I’m looking forward to reading more. You see, there is one conversation with Billy Bob that I do remember quite clearly. So I started thinking about writing this. Then I saw today’s post at Praxis and knew I needed to get this out, if only for me.

I think there were some people who underestimated the sharp mind behind the name and southern drawl that was Billy Bob. During that long ago late night conversation with Billy Bob, we were discussing fiberoptics. He told me, “Mark my words, Vivian. The FAA’s setting themselves up to remote terminal radars and towers. They’re going to reduce the number of TRACONs to a number closer to what we have for centers and they’re going to want us to control all the tower traffic that they haven’t contracted out from some huge complex in Kansas or something.”

I’ve never forgotten that conversation because at the time, working traffic at Boston Tower, the thought of NOT seeing my traffic terrified me (still does). Even if every vehicle and plane were outfitted with special transmitters or transponders, if I were in Kansas, how would I see that DC-9’s compressor stall and flames shooting out an engine, or that hot brake on that B727, or that snowy owl hanging out to the left of the runway, or that flock of seagulls flying down the final, or the dog, deer or coyote crossing the runway in front of a departiing aircraft…and so on. And you know, I’ve seen nothing in the years since we had that conversation that proves Billy Bob wrong and way too much that proves he was right on with his predictions.

Billy Bob had his faults, like everyone else, but he was my friend. He worked hard and he played even harder. I sometimes wonder if he knew subconsciously he wasn’t going to live a long life and wanted to pack in his living early. Billy Bob, I really miss you, man.

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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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Our friend, John Carr, has taken down his blog, The Main Bang. John is the immediate past President of NATCA; he held the position for six years. Johnny the Bull retired from air traffic control last year. On a personal note, John and his wife have multiples as well – a beautiful set of triplets – as well as a beautiful singleton.

There has been a lot of speculation as to why John has made this decision, but my take from his last post was that it is for personal reasons. I was going to leave his link on the blogroll and leave it inactive for now, but I haven’t figured out how to do it. I don’t doubt he’ll be back to blog on the failings of the FAA or whatever else catches his fancy. The question that remains is when.

I’m not the first one to blog on his recent decision. Don Brown over at Get the Flick, Blue Eyed Buddhist over at The FAA Follies, and Todd over at Vanity Fair Musings all beat me to it. There will probably be more to follow. John’s writing had a lot of followers, not just those of us in air traffic control clicked on his site.

In the meantime, I’m going to leave the RSS feed for the Bang on my favorites toolbar. Who knows, maybe one day – sooner rather than later – the feed will load again with some biting, satirical bit of alliteration from my friend. One can only hope.

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Take a look here at the FAA bid for air traffic controllers at Miami Tower (MIA) which closes at the end of the month. It’s listed as an ATC-12 bid, but what they fail to mention is that you won’t be working at an ATC-12 facility. Bid closes June 30, 2008. Even assuming the Agency can finish their paperwork for selecting individuals in record time, not one facility is going to let a CPC go before the end of the summer, probably closer to mid-September (if this year at all with the staffing the way it is nationwide). At my facility, we’ve been waiting for a transfer for over a year simply because the releasing facility is too short-staffed to let him go.

The FAA notified NATCA via letter on March 31, 2008 that MIA is scheduled to have the tower and TRACON functions split in January, 2009, as is Philadelphia (PHL), Memphis (MEM) and Orlando (MCO). There’s no way it’ll still be an ATC-12 facility, regardless whether you stay with the tower or the TRACON. Which means, according to the Agency’s imposed work rules, you can expect your pay reduced within two years – 4% per grade.

I’m not even going to try to go into the short-sightedness of the Agency to decombine facilities at this time. That’s a subject for another blog.

Even if I were interested in moving to MIA (which I’m not), I wouldn’t go under these conditions.

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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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Iconoclast.

Not a word you usually hear bandied about in casual conversation.

–noun

  1. a breaker or destroyer of images, esp. those set up for religious veneration.
  2. a person who attacks cherished beliefs, traditional institutions, etc., as being based on error or superstition.

Catalyst. Critic. Cynic. Denouncer. Dissenter. Dissident. Heretic. Image-breaker. Non-believer. Non-conformist. Questioner. Radical. Rebel. Revolutionist. Ruiner. Skeptic. Unbeliever.

The word you’d choose as the best synonym would be based on your particular views of the “cherished beliefs” or “traditional institutions” being attacked, wouldn’t it? The FAA would call NATCAvists critics, cynics, dissidents, heretics, image-breakers, radicals, rebels, ruiners, skeptics and unbelievers. NATCAvists would classify themselves catalysts, critics, denouncers, dissenters, non-believers, non-conformists, questioners, rebels and revolutionists.

But, then again, maybe you’d choose a different category of synonym based on the perceived motivation of the iconoclast. Personal grudge? Monetary gain? Righteous indignation? Factual knowledge of “errors”? Motivation of others? The list is endless.

In every instance, regardless of which synonym you’d choose for whatever reason, the iconoclast – by its very existence – demands independent thought of him/herself and those he/she interacts with. The iconoclast does not need to be right or wrong, it just needs to exist.

Sometimes there’s more being said than what is spoken or written, like in this post. Other times, what you see or hear is all there is. Learning to recognize which is which also requires independent thought.

Something to independently think about.

Vivian

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I don’t always agree with what he has to say, but Rob Mark can be an interesting read and he is genuinely concerned about aviation safety. Check out his latest on Jetwhine about controllers and overtime. More specifically, check out what controllers have to say “splain”-ing it to him. If the FAA says something, the odds are they are twisting the facts to hide their own shortcomings.

For what it’s worth, it doesn’t matter whether or not a controller (or inspector, for that matter) “volunteers” for overtime, they will be assigned it if the Agency (not us) deems it necessary – that makes it mandatory. Questions the flying public and Congress should be getting answers to are:

WHY is so much overtime is necessary nowadays to continue running air traffic in the United States?

WHY are controllers retiring at a rate of 1 every 9 hours – the overwhelming majority well before their mandatory retirement age?

WHY does the Agency continue to spout the rhetoric that it’s safe to have controllers work regularly sixty-hour workweeks, just because they supposedly volunteer for it?

HOW and WHY did the Agency put itself get into this position?

WHY are they continuing on the same course?

WHAT is going to take before YOU, Congress and the flying public, take some concrete, meaningful action to change it? It’s quite obvious the Agency has no intention of doing so.

It won’t be any comfort at all to the controllers in this nation for us to be able to say “I told you so” when something catastrophic occurs. Our entire worklives revolve around averting those types of situations.

Maybe another question you should ask is why so many controllers are spending so much of their personal lives (that isn’t eaten up by the mandatory overtime) warning of the risks and dangers. Are we really just crying wolf or are we warning of the wolf in sheep’s clothing decimating the flock at an alarming rate?

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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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