Tag Archives: air traffic control

May the Festivities Begin


Happy Thanksgiving, everyone, and a Happy חֲנֻכָּה to all my Jewish friends. May everyone have a great and wonderful holiday season filled with friends, family, and insightful reflection on all that has gone well for you over this past year and all the things for which you have to be thankful in your life.

The following is a piece written by Brian Fung for the Washington Post.  Although it’s geared toward my former profession — Air Traffic Control — the sentiment that we should thank those who work through this holiday to keep us all safe should apply to so many more of our public servants and military than just controllers (the same public servants who find themselves publicly attacked and scorned today by those in Washington with an agenda . . . an agenda that somehow doesn’t include working on Holidays or sharing in sacrifice for the betterment of the country; see Indentured Servitude is Alive and Well in the U.S.).

Thank an air traffic controller today

By Brian Fung, Updated: November 27 at 11:38 am

Two-and-a-half million people are going to try to fly someplace Wednesday. If you’re one of those poor souls, you may be itching to strangle someone by the time you collapse into your shoe box of a seat. But, realistically? Our headaches as passengers — flight delays, long lines at security — mostly get sorted out before we board the plane.

Not so for air traffic controllers, many of whom are preparing for a high-stress day that’s even worse this year due to a wintry storm that’s battering the East Coast. Even as the rest of us sit down to a big turkey dinner on Thursday, many of the nation’s 27,000 air traffic controllers will still be on duty.

Once a plane leaves the airport, responsibility for tracking it gets handed off to a local departure controller — a TRACON facility, for short — that monitors a wider area. There are dozens of these. Then, as the plane leaves the region, another facility, called an area control center (ACC), takes over. The process has to take place in reverse when the aircraft reaches its destination.

Air traffic control is a highly specialized industry, but it’s also a shrinking one. By 2019, the country is expected to have shed more than 12,000 air traffic control jobs, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. That’s because a huge share of the sector’s workforce is about to retire.

(Click on this link for the original article along with a chart showing the age distribution of today’s controller workforce)

To head off a looming shortage of controllers, the FAA plans to hire more than 11,000 new workers by the decade’s end. Becoming an air traffic controller can be a harrowing journey in itself. That’s because there’s really only one path to an ATC job if you haven’t held one before, and it runs straight through the FAA. New ATC candidates spend years studying for the FAA’s pre-employment exam; if they score below a 70, they have to wait another year to take the test. This wouldn’t be quite so stressful if time weren’t working against the candidates; most controllers get their first jobs in their 20s and work for only about 30 years before retiring.

In 2011, air traffic controllers famously made headlines when some were caught napping on the job because of their exhausting work schedules. The FAA introduced new regulations for work shifts to try to curb the problem.

(See my take on this scandal in U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood on Sleeping Controllers)

ATC workers do get compensated pretty well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a starting controller’s salary begins at $37,000 but quickly ramps up to a median of $108,000 a year.

All of this is taking place against the backdrop of a massive shift in air traffic technology that controllers will need to adapt to. For decades, the nation’s air traffic control system has mostly relied on the same radar technology that told World War II-era controllers where their planes were. But now the FAA is rolling out upgrades that add satellite technology to the mix. This is useful in places where we can’t build a radar tower — like in the middle of the ocean — but it also requires new standards, policies and procedures that controllers will need to learn in addition to doing their regular jobs.

Air traffic controllers are giving up their Thanksgiving to keep our pilots from crashing in mid-air. So whether you know one or not, let’s make today Thank an Air Traffic Controller Day.

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Indentured Servitude is Alive and Well in the U.S.


An Airport Traffic Control (ATC) Tower

An Airport Traffic Control Tower (ATCT)

Take it from a former controller who has in his 34 years in the business worked at some pretty busy facilities under less than ideal conditions with obsolete or failing equipment and uncooperative weather:  There are few if any jobs more stressful than air traffic control.  Period.  It’s certainly more stressful than being, say, a congressman or a senator.

Imagine working New York TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) during a busy inbound rush of air carriers, failing equipment, and a line of thunderstorms pushing into the area from the west.  Throw into that mix an inflight emergency or two and perhaps an aircraft with minimum fuel that needs to get on the ground right now.

Then let’s add to all that stress.

Let’s tell those controllers that they have to go to work, but a group of about thirty congressmen and a senator or two who didn’t agree with the results of the last election are going to refuse to allow the United States Congress to pay them.

These already overworked, stressed controllers have mortgages to make, utilities to pay, car payments, grocery bills, kids in college . . . but none of that makes any difference.  They are required by federal law to work.  For free.  Indefinitely.

Think that’s fair?  That’s what’s happening right now, this very second.  In New York.  In Dallas.  In Atlanta.  In Chicago.  In Los Angeles.  In myriad other busy facilities across this great nation.  All because of thirty-some-odd Congressmen and at least one delusional, grand-standing Senator from Texas who has ambitions beyond the senate seat he’s held for less than ten months.

Tomorrow, these controllers will be paid for only 48 of the 80 or more hours they worked — the 48 hours they worked before the shutdown that occurred just thirteen days ago.  Those controllers received that bad news when they got their “pay” statements last Thursday.  Two weeks from tomorrow the amount in their paychecks drops to Z-E-R-O despite working another 80 or more hours during the next pay period.

How long do you think you could financially hold on under such conditions?  How long do you think it’ll be before some of these controllers have to resign to find jobs that pay the bills?  How long do you think it’ll be before retirement-eligible controllers with 20 or 25+ years of badly needed experience and who are currently mentoring an already far-too-young and inexperienced group of new controllers decide that they should go into retirement just to pay the bills?  (Controllers, by the way, are only allowed to work to the last day of the month in which they turn 56 because of the stresses inherent to their jobs, and because before that reduction in the retirement age, very few controllers could make it to mandatory retirement because of failing health and deteriorating abilities and reaction times.  These are the professionals who your congressman is stiffing on pay for work they’ve already done.)

How long before that radar control room guiding your airliner is staffed like this?:

The Control Room of a Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON)

The Control Room of a Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON)

And while these people are working for free, I’d like for you to consider this:  Those congressmen?  The ones who before the last election proclaimed the 2012 elections a “referendum on Obamacare?”  The congressmen who are now having a temper tantrum because, at their core, they apparently only believe in democracy when it suits them?

Those congressmen work on average just two days out of every five-day workweek, earn at a minimum $174,000 a year (Speaker Boehner gets a whopping $223,500 for not doing his job), are vested for retirement benefits after only five years on what I laughingly call “the job,” get federally subsidized healthcare (which those thirty want to deny people who make one tenth as much as they), and they continue to receive those pay and all those benefits while your air traffic controllers are forced to do without.  Those congressmen certainly aren’t hurting financially during this self-induced “crisis,” but your air traffic controllers certainly are.

How dare any elected representative do this to employees who work for them?  How dare any elected representative put employees’ families through this kind of stress and uncertainty?  How dare anyone whose job is given to them by a democratic process repudiate the outcome of a democratic election because they do not agree with the results?

It is way past time to start reducing the stress levels of your already overstressed air traffic controllers, and to start raising the stress levels of your elected representative.  And if you live in the state of Texas, as do I, it’s way past time to tell the wealthy Senator Ted Cruz (55th wealthiest member of the U.S. Senate) that if he doesn’t agree with democracy, then it’s well beyond time to democratically terminate his employment come next election.

These people, quite frankly, disgust this former Republican who, effective October 1 of this year, no longer affiliates himself with what once was truly the Grand Old Party . . . but is no more.

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Marion Blakey — The “Gift” Who Keeps on Giving


Aviation safety is a subject that is near and dear to my heart.  After all, I worked in that field (as an air traffic controller) for nearly thirty-five years.  It’s also a subject about which I’ve not blogged in some time.  In other words, I’m long overdue and something has turned up in the news in such a way as to allow me to say, “I told you so.”

Host is the automation system that has run our nation’s en route air traffic control systems for some forty years.  Host originally ran on the IBM 9020 mainframe, a computer system that dates back to 1964 and which was first installed in FAA en route facilities in the late 1960s.  That mainframe infrastructure has been upgraded twice — first to the IBM 3083 and later to the IBM 9672 — however the original Host system remains pretty much as it did upon implementation.

Yes.  You read that correctly.  The computer automation used in the en route environment in the United States dates back to a system that was developed almost fifty years ago.

Those who’ve followed this blog since its inception know that former FAA Administrator Marion Blakey (with the considerable help of Congressman John Mica of Florida’s 7th Congressional District) managed in just five short years to destroy twenty-five years of rebuilding efforts following in the wake of the illegal PATCO strike that occurred on August 3, 1981.  She managed to do this by in effect declaring war on her own controller workforce, freezing pay, illegally imposing an unnegotiated “contract,” and removing controllers and their input from all equipment modernization programs.  Considering that controllers (understandably) become eligible for retirement from this stressful, nerve-wracking, and very demanding job after only twenty-five years of service, and understanding that 1981 + 25 = 2006 . . . .  Well, you can imagine the results.  Many of the controllers who had reached retirement eligibility, and whose skills were desperately needed because of long-standing, nation-wide staffing shortages, headed for the door in record numbers.

But let’s go back for a moment to that bit about removing controllers and their input from modernization programs.  One of those programs was the En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) program.  ERAM is the replacement for the antiquated Host system.  Removing controllers from the development of the equipment they must use to keep Airplane A from smacking into Airplane B at 37,000 feet and a closure speed in excess of 1,000 m.p.h. is a bit like designing the cockpit of a modern jetliner without any pilot input.  It’s as if engineers decided what customer-drivers want in a car without ever asking them.  It’s the equivalent of using a chimpanzee to test the ergonomics and comfort of a recliner intended for a football-watching, beer-swilling couch potato.  In other words, it’s stupid not only in practice, but even intuitively.  You just know it’s wrong without even thinking about it.

The inevitable, entirely predictable, totally expected result of such stupidity?  We found out last week in testimony before Congress.  ERAM is now four years behind schedule and $330 million over budget.

You can read all the gory details here, here, and here,

That $330 million cost overrun, by the way, is probably much more than what Ms. Blakey saved in freezing controller pay and enticing badly needed controllers to head for the golf course.  And it’s probably just a fraction of what Ms. Blakey’s war on controllers has cost the airlines, their passengers, and their passengers’ employers in delays, wasted fuel, lost time, and lost productivity.  That figure very likely runs into the tens of billions.

And those pesky controllers who Marion Blakey didn’t want anywhere near ERAM development?  They’ve been called in by the current Administrator and management team to try to salvage the mess that Ms. Blakey’s and Congressman Mica’s inept, vindictive, childish, stupid decisions wrought.  Unfortunately, controllers have been brought into the tail end of the process, and much of what was previously developed is in desperate need of redevelopment.  Meanwhile, current FAA management struggles to correct the horrendous mistakes of the past, rebuild the shattered relations with their controller workforce, and put back on track the derailed development of the technologies desperately needed to bring about modernization of this nation’s vital aviation infrastructure.

$333 million over budget and four years behind schedule.

Stupid is awfully hard to fix.

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