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.