Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Air Traffic Controller Snoozing

Six sleeping air traffic controllers and counting. There was another one caught this weekend in Florida, I think. So, it’s back to my pounding the FBGs—it’s under their management these events are occurring. Listening to blather about circadian rhythms as an excuse for dereliction of duty is growing tiresome. These people make me want to puke.

When I started flying in the 1960s it was obvious to even a youngster that the adults in charge of the system were a serious lot. In fact, as a life-long critic of government bureaucracies, the FAA earned significant respect in my youthful appraisal of such things. One thing I didn’t think much of at the time, but consider frequently these days, is the fact that both the sixties professional aviator ranks and the FAA air traffic control system was in the capable hands of a heavy contingent of ex-Air Force people. A lot of them had either flown or worked in the Eighth Army Air Force during WWII where they learned about the serious business of aviation and their responsibilities for attention to duty.

Sometime in the 1970s things began to change as unionization and the bureaucracy grew. More and more airspace came under air traffic “control” and more and more rules crept into a formerly open operating environment. For pilots, delays mounted and dissatisfaction grew. It was the time that our generation was coming of age. By the early 1980s air traffic controllers had convinced themselves that it was they, not the pilots who were responsible for the safe conduct of a flight. In a real sense, those beliefs led to the firing of the air traffic controllers by President Reagan in 1981 and the decertification of their union, PATCO.

Pilots are trained differently. They are trained to be competent in the safe operation of their aircraft, including the takeoff, accurate enroute navigation, and safe landing at a destination—all without the “control” of ground controllers. If the weather is bad at a desired destination, the pilot always plans for an alternative destination and carries additional fuel for the possible diversion. He also knows how to use the instrument landing resources of a destination airport without the need to talk to a ground controller.

The clash comes when ground controllers and pilots disagree over who is in charge of a flight. There is not a single pilot who would relinquish control and decision making to a ground controller…it’s a “set in stone” kind of thing. So, if the controller is asleep at his post, it’s really not much of a problem for a pilot with respect to operating his aircraft safely.

In the present commercial air traffic system, airlines tend to bunch their flights in and out of destinations at certain times during the day. Not much is happening at the airports during the wee hours except for light plane traffic and freight carriers. They, too, are trained to operate without benefit of a ground controller.

When I started in the sixties, most airports were NOT staffed with controllers after about 10 or 12 at night. If you came in late, your radio transmitter would turn on the runway lights and you would put the plane down in accordance with a standard operating procedure. All licensed pilots knew that procedure and operated accordingly. What has changed? Not much, really. There may be less overall traffic in the skies today since the number of active licensed pilots has been declining for the past few decades. Perhaps the only difference between now and then, is an overreaching controllers’ union that has sought to increase staffing when and where it is not needed. Beware of a call for additional staff in the wee hours in order to help keep people awake…I would argue that there is another agenda at work.

Note: If you watch some of the old WWII movies showing the Air Force in action, you can see that the ground controller was mostly a messenger who relayed local winds, altimeter settings, and active runways. The rest of it was left in the hands of the pilot to put it safely on the ground.

During the period following the 1981 firing of the air traffic controllers and subsequent rebuilding of the corps, one of my closer friends, an AAL captain, related a funny little story. The Captain was a gray-haired veteran (possibly WWII) and headed to Las Vegas on a recent evening. The young controller taking the Captain’s flight plan filing was well-versed in the aviation acronyms for navigation equipment aboard and was nonplussed to find that the Captain had almost nothing aboard his old 727 by way of modern navigation equipment.

Growing frustrated with the Captain’s series of negative responses regarding not having certain equipment, the controller exasperatedly asked, “Captain, how do you intend to get to Las Vegas tonight?” “EYES” was the Captain’s response. The Captain relished both telling the story and the young controller’s incredulity.

It’s been 30-years since he told me that story and it still brings a chuckle. Pilots are trained to get where they’re going by looking outside the plane and comparing landmarks to a flight chart they carry with them.

A final thought...I'm sympathetic to the notion that long, late hours of boredom are difficult to bear while remaining alert. I've done them, a lot of us have. However, while pilots can handle the safe operation of their aircraft, there are times that competent ground control is a vital service. These times involve seriously bad weather when visibility is poor and in areas such as large metropolitan concentrations where air traffic tends to accumulate in the vicinity of busy airports. Generally, in these areas the ground control functions around the clock and activity is great enough to keep everyone on their toes.

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