Interview With An Air Traffic Controller

With morale among overworked and poorly supported air-traffic controllers bottoming out, “a combination of fatigue and frustration is laying a dangerous groundwork,” reports Time magazine. The spokesman for their union says, “”We’re left trying to hold the system together like MacGyver — with duct tape and scissors and string.” Time interviewed a controller to find out what’s going on, and what the consequences could be if we (or the airline industry and the FAA) don’t address the problems.

What are the inherent difficulties in pulling together that process?
 
One of our Achilles heels is a very antiquated communications system. We use 1950s technology to communicate in a 2010 environment. The frustrating thing is, there are incredible technologies available for communicating — via data-link or digital voice radio systems — and I’ve seen people die because we haven’t implemented those technologies.

 
“Air Traffic Controller Sounds Alarm” [Time]
(Photo: moogs)

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  1. ucdcsteve says:

    To preface, I work for a company directly involved with the aviation community. We are non-profit, so I take no sides.

    Unfortunately, the problem is systematic across the board in aviation. Data-link is something that would require a change not only in the air traffic control system, but the airlines and private air traffic comms. as well. It’s certainly on the horizon, but it’s not something simple as swapping out hardware. There is extensive software development and testing to be done. Should the process of testing and its introduction have begun in earnest earlier? That’s a difficult question to answer. Was it a political delay or did technology not support the desired process? If you’re going to completely change a process that is entrenched, you want to do it once, and you want to do it correctly.

    Air traffic controllers are also unionized. I have seen the politics mentioned at work not only on the FAA level, but resistance from the unions to change as well – a feeling of technology replacing workers, and a fear that I am neither agreeing nor disagreeing with, simply mentioning its presence. This is a complicated issue, and hopefully it’s something that will be worked out in the future. It would be nice to assuage the fears of the traveler, as most controllers are extremely competent in their work – it’s a rare confidence in the workplace, and it’s impressive to see. Claims of people dying in the future, while possible, does little to lessen the fears of the traveling public, already reeling from higher gas prices, airline fees, and security woes.

  2. dustinwwhite says:

    Not bunkering enough fuel + this bullshit = BOOM!!!

  3. backbroken says:

    Didn’t I read this article in 1982, 1988, 1994, 1999, and 2004?

  4. timmus says:

    Well we also read it in 1956… back then there was that Lockheed Constellation & DC-7 crash over the Grand Canyon and ATC used timing & radio calls to separate aircraft. That incident was the catalyst for a huge renovation of air traffic control, and 10 years later there was coast-to-coast radar facilities.

  5. Crim Law Geek says:

    From the above: “I’ve seen people die because we haven’t implemented those technologies.”

    I call bullshit on this. According to this list: [en.wikipedia.org] the last non-military midair collisions in the United States were two Cessnas in January 2008 in California and two news helicopters in Arizona. The two in the US prior to that were in 1978 and 1976 (both over California).

    While TFA mentions the source works in California, what are the odds that he was one of the guys on duty when the last midair collision happened? It also mentions he has been on the job for 22 years, so he wasn’t around for the ’78 and ’76 incidents.

  6. ThunderRoad says:

    MacGyver never had scissors.

  7. ARP says:

    @backbroken: Yes, they’ve prevented deaths by essentially retarding (in the classic sense, not pejoritive), the growth/capacity of our system.

    As @ucdcsteve: mentions, I’m sure their are a myriad of reasons for this problem . But simply ignorning it will only make it worse. Then again, with gas prices, we may be returning to the 50’s where only the wealthy could afford to fly.

  8. bobblack555 says:

    The FCC is broken.

  9. Snaptastic says:

    Ooohhh…Wikipedia! Heavens knows they are always right!

    Some of the worst collisions have happened on the ground–with aircraft on the runways while others are taking off/departing. This can also include airport vehicles such as snow plows.

    I’m surprised not much was mentioned on the controllers as well. Most of the FAA’s experience lies with a bunch of disgruntled controllers who are in their 50s and eligible to retire (or within a year or two of doing so). The strike back in the Regan era is what caused it, since the FAA’s management never took into account that those controllers hired then would have to retire at the same time.

    So what does the FAA do? They cut the pay of the new controllers coming in and severely limit it. Lots of new controllers have left because they can’t afford to feed their families, many others are working second jobs. Hell, if it wasn’t for the fact that I’m a disabled veteran receiving a pension, I would have to find a second job just to pay off the rent because the cost of living where I am is high (and I’m single with no crotch fruit to worry about, and my finances are good, so it’s not like I’m trying to live beyond my means).

    On the bright side, the FAA treats me better than the Air Force ever did (the military worked me for at least 12 hours a day, and that was in the US on my “normal” job)…but the top tiers of the FAA management make it clear they hate all of the controllers and want to do all they can to cut corners and save money.

    The FAA is splurging on us though, our control tower is being remodeled, and we even got a USB keyboard to go with it! :-) [/sarcasm]

  10. loganmo says:

    “Where did you get that dress, its awful and those shoes, jeeeeez.”

  11. BMRFILE says:

    For those of you who call bullshit on implementing new technology, you don’t understand the dangers we’re facing today in air travel. Look, I travel a lot for my job, and for selfish reasons and the sfatey of everyone who rides on a plane at some point in their lives, I would like to see new, proven technology being put to use.

    When you make a mistake with an airplane, a lot of people die. That should be a good enough reason for the FAA, and the airline companies and lawmakers to want to strive for perfection, like air traffic controllers.

    ATCs, a big salute to all you guys and gals for getting me there safely!

  12. mac-phisto says:

    @ThunderRoad: BUT, he almost always had his swiss army knife –> [homepages.webenz.net]

  13. balthisar says:

    Let’s not forget that we also need equipment that’s compatible with other countries’ systems and aircraft. $$$

  14. backbroken says:

    @ARP: I’m not saying we don’t need improvements. I simply question the ‘sky is falling’ (pun intended) tone especially since we’ve heard this record before.

  15. backbroken says:

    I probably should add that I design software that could be used by the FAA to replace their outdated systems.

  16. bearymore says:

    @thirdgen:

    This is just not true. If you query the NTSB data base, [www.ntsb.gov] you will find there were 69 mid-air collisions since 1/1/2003. If there are more in southern California, that is only because SoCal is by far the busiest airspace in the country.

    What’s happening is that Bush is doing to the FAA just what he did to FEMA. Appoint political hacks to head it up and then outsource and cut to make it more “businesslike”. Any time this administration decides to make an agency business like, that signals its imminent demise. Then add on the idea that it is a technology issue and you should raise your boondoggle alert because crony contracts are coming to town.

    As a private pilot in SoCal who uses air traffic control services, I have only praise and admiration for the job that the controllers do under the deteroriating working conditions they are faced with. The solution is to recruit more controllers and pay them what they are worth.

  17. theblackdog says:

    @loganmo: To the tower! Rapunzel!!

  18. johnva says:

    @bearymore: How are you searching for the number of midair collisions? I’m not able to reproduce your number of midair collisions the way I was searching.

  19. BMRFILE says:

    @johnva: Probably not, but on ground collision is just as deadly. I’m sure ATCs all over the country have stories about close calls on the tarmac. I’m not too concerned about mid-air as I am concerned with a plane taxiing down teh runway, only to get plowed by a plane touching down.

  20. bearymore says:

    @johnva:

    I left everything at default and entered “mid-air collision” in the word string field. The hyphen makes a difference. If you leave it out, you get 32 hits which seem to be different accidents. So 69 is a very conservative estimate.

  21. johnva says:

    @bearymore: If you notice, that’s not 69 separate accidents but 69 planes involved in accidents. The actual number of incidents returned by that search is approximately half as many.

  22. Retired07 says:

    There is so much more to be said here. As a retired controller after 30 years, I can tell you there is a great deal more going on in the FAA control facilities that is totally unknown to the flying public. First, I will let it be known that I absolutely loved the job, and found it to be most rewarding. However, after the FAA imposed it’s new work rules on the controllers after Sept, 2006…the job became intollerable. The week before these “rules” were imposed, the “head-cheese” of our facility advised us via daily meetings that the FAA had decided they needed to be more business like and start saving money. Thus, HUGE paycuts for those new employees coming in, and absolutely rediculous rules were implemented such as dress codes and such. The work envirenment became hostile, pitting middle-management against controllers. Management was more concerned about our clothes than they were the safety of the flying public. On top of that, a pay freeze was implemented for 5 years. A controllers retirement is based upon his/hers “average high three” years of their salary…so what was the reason for staying. NONE. Also, let it be known…this IS a high-stress job, and as far as I am concerned, to add to the stress by implementing these new rules is quite frankly dangerous. Forced overtime, 10 hour days, and 6 day workweeks is NOT the way to go. The Agency imposed a hiring freeze years ago, and that is why they are in the situation they are in now. They waited too long to get new folks in to begin training. Now…older experienced controllers who have had it with the Agency and it’s chaotic management are bailing at incredibly high numbers, thus leaving the Agency stretched thin. Too little….too late! And the retirements have just begun.

  23. civicmon says:

    Listening to ATC tapes on youtube (JFK is the best) can be an amusing and horrifying experience at the same time.