Tag Archives: John Mica

The Classic Definition of Insanity — Privatizing Essential Government Services . . . Again . . . and Expecting Different Results!

We’ve tried this failed experiment before, and once again it’s your safety and the nation’s security that are at stake as we try it yet again.  Yep, we’re talking lives, property, and national security sacrificed upon the altar of a long-discredited philosophy that places corporate profits above your (and the nation’s) interests.

Standard warning posted outside Air Traffic Control Facilities — Looks “Inherently Governmental” to me!

This time it’s the remnants your Air Traffic Control system they want to sell off.  You remember air traffic controllers.  They’re the only federal employees during the run up to and aftermath from the 9/11 attacks to actually have performed flawlessly in saving lives that day and disrupting further attacks.  The FBI and CIA?  Not so much.

The usual suspects are at it this time as well.  If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time then you know who they are.  They are Congressman John Mica, “Think” Tanker Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation, and privatization forces both within and outside congress.  And, as always, all one need do is follow the money.

We’ve seen before how these forces work together.  They manufacture a “crisis” by defunding, sequestration, furlough, and intentional disruption, then claim the only “solution” to Congress’ inability to govern (in other words do the one job your representative and senators were elected to perform) is to spin off yet another essential government service so that corporations can profit from those services while charging taxpayers two, three, four or even more times what we now spend in return for reduced levels of service over what we currently receive.

Now we have another proposal to privatize, either through a government-run corporation (how’s that Post Office thing working out for you, by the way?) or spin off to corporate America (ditto Blackwater, Haliburton, Harris Corporation, Lockheed Martin AFSS, and many other examples too numerous to list), the remaining two of the original three legs of this nation’s air traffic control system.  Those two remaining legs would be this nation’s vital Air Route Traffic Control Centers and Terminal Facilities (Terminal Radar Approach Controls and Control Towers).

What was the third leg, you ask?  The one that is now a laughable shadow of its former self?  We’ll get to that now:

Here’s an example of what to expect from the selling/spinning off of your air traffic control system — the system you already bought and paid for.  John Mica and Robert Poole advocated for and achieved the privatization of the Flight Service Stations that file flight plans; coordinate overdue aircraft notifications; and brief general aviation pilots on everything from equipment outages, to presidential aircraft movements they need to avoid, to hazardous weather and other safety-related information critical to the conduct of safe flight.  It was their crowning achievement, designed according to them to save the government money while providing better service for less cost.  How has it worked?

Dismally.  And you, the taxpayer, are paying what I conservatively estimate to be four times as much per operation as you did before the sell-off.  Worse, because AFSS facilities were consolidated and vital services were curtailed to increase corporate profits, people have actually died as a direct result of John Mica’s and Robert Poole’s efforts, others have had rescues delayed after crashes (see below), and the security of even presidents of the United States — both past and present — has been violated on more than one occasion because private pilots left flight service briefings unwarned of presidential movement flight restrictions.

Before FAA Administrator Marion Blakey transferred to Lockheed Martin control of most of this nation’s Automated Flight Service Stations back in 2005, the FAA in the preceding year conducted around 25,922,000 “operations” (defined as any pilot contact whether by radio or telephone for a specified service).  By 2011, the last full year for which such data is currently available, that number had dropped to around 6,553,000 (a figure which includes right around 435,000 operations performed by the FAA’s few remaining Alaska Flight Service Stations).  That’s a drop of right around 75%.  Where did all those pilots go?  If you ask they’ll gladly tell you their horror stories.  Many quit using Flight Services because of notoriously bad service, incorrect information, and long waits on the telephone and over the radio since Lockheed Martin took over AFSS operations.  Indeed it initially got so bad that many pilots in the Lower 48 were calling FAA Alaska Flight Service Stations to file flight plans and get weather briefings even if they were going no farther north than the Florida panhandle.  Really.  I’m not kidding

And don’t even think of asking pilot Michael Trapp about the services he received from Lockheed Martin’s Lansing AFSS.  They darned near managed to kill him.  Mr. Trapp contacted Lockheed AFSS as his Cessna 150 was going down into Lake Huron on July 26, 2011.  He thought his radio distress call was being picked up by Lansing AFSS.  Unfortunately, in the name of cost cutting and unbeknownst to Mr. Trapp, Lockheed Martin had closed Lansing AFSS.  His distress call was instead answered by someone in Leesburg, Virginia.  That someone was totally unfamiliar with the area around the Great Lakes, and consequently unfamiliar with the landmarks Mr. Trapp relayed to the controller.  That just so happens to violate a clause in the AFSS contract that stipulates AFSS controllers will have familiarity with the area they are servicing.  So, despite Mr. Trapp having given his approximate location after an initially incorrect position report, the controller in Leesburg still managed to send rescuers to the wrong lake — only four hours after the crash, because the Leesburg controller did not initially relay to the Coast Guard the seriousness of the situation.  What should have been perhaps an hour ordeal wound up with Mr. Trapp treading water for eighteen hours and throughout a very long night before being picked up the next day by boaters unconnected to the rescuers searching in the wrong area.

Meanwhile, despite never having fully complied with the terms of their contract and having chased away three out of every four pilots using Flight Services, Lockheed Martin still get paid as though they were still handling nearly 26,000,000 operations per year.  Indeed, the FAA announced in September of 2013 that they were extending Lockheed Martin’s contract for an additional two years at a cost of $221,000,000.  That’s on top of a previous three-year, $356,000,000 extension awarded in 2010.  Those figures as far as I know doesn’t include bonuses routinely given to Lockheed Martin despite repeated noncompliance of contractual obligations.  Lockheed Martin then bragged in the same press release that they had in 2012:

  • Filed more than 1 million flight plans for aviation pilots;
  • Provided more than 1.5 million pilot weather briefings;
  • Answered 457,575 aviation radio contacts; and
  • Helped pilots in 6,691 aviation search and rescue events.

Now, I’m no math wiz, and the FAA has yet to release statistics for all 0f 2012 and beyond, but it appears to me from the above numbers that total operations dropped even further to less than 3,000,000.  In just two years!  Additionally, a quick calculation reveals that if (a big”if” considering the decline in numbers seen ever since Lockheed Martin took over) Lockheed Martin AFSS specialists continue to work 3,000,000 operations a year over the two-year life of that latest extension, they will pocket nearly $37 per operation.  Or, in other works, $37 for every telephone and radio call made to a Lockheed Martin AFSS.

Sounds a bit like one of thoseI-made-$15,000-last-month-working-at-home” scams, doesn’t it?

Think that’s a good deal for the taxpayer?  Robert Poole and John Mica do.  But don’t even think of letting them do for your (because you bought and paid for them) En Route and Terminal Air Traffic Services what they did with your (which you also bought and paid for, but which they gave away) Flight Service Stations.

And don’t let your congressman or senators tell you that you must now relinquish services you bought and paid for, and turn them over to corporate profiteers, because your congressman or senators either cannot or will not do the job they were elected to perform.  Any congressman or senator telling you that has just told you that they are unfit to govern and shouldn’t be in office.

Indeed, John Mica has been telling his constituents that he’s unfit to govern for over a decade.  Question is, are the voters in Florida’s 7th Congressional District finally going to listen to him this time?


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Filed under Aviation Safety, R. Doug Wicker

ATC Zero — The Nightmare at Chicago En Route Center

Standard FAA Facility Warning SIgn

Standard FAA Facility Warning SIgn

This week we got yet another lesson on the dangers of consolidating air traffic control facilities in the name of “saving money.” We also got a lesson on the abject failure of privatization, the “think tanks” that push privatization, contracting out maintenance of vital infrastructure, corporate greed, and the Washington corruption that breeds this sort of thing.

Harris Corporation employee Brian Howard allegedly cut radar and communications cables, set fire to vital equipment, and then attempted to go all Norman Bates on himself this past week.

Future Harris Corp. employee Norman Bates

The result is millions of dollars in damages and probably hundreds of millions in lost revenue to the airlines. That Harris contract, by the way, is worth some $331 million. Considering the impact to people, business, and national security, was it worth it? Ask your congressman and senators.  And ask if Harris Corp. is going to foot the bill, although we already know the answer to that one.

While you’re at it, ask where your congressman and senators stand on the consolidation agenda of Congressman John Mica of Florida’s 7th Congressional District, or the privatization of vital national defense infrastructure also pushed by him as well as the completely discredited Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation. For if both these men had their way it is very likely Indianapolis Center, Minneapolis Center, Cleveland Center, and Kansas City Center would not have been around to pick up at least some of Chicago Center’s traffic. Instead, if these two had their way, all those centers would have been in just one facility, and that facility would be the one down.

What would have been the impact of that? See for yourself:

FAA Area Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) Boundaries, a.k.a., “En Route Centers

We get this lesson on a fairly consistent basis. There was the 2003 evacuation of Southern California TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control), which handles approach services to every major airport in Southern California. That disruption resulted from a brush fire and effectively shut down to IFR aircraft nearly every airport in half the state. In the past three years alone we witnessed no less than three evacuations of the Chicago TRACON, which serves O’Hare, Midway, and other Chicago area airports. And in 2007 Memphis Center went ATC Zero because a single critical phone line bundle was cut. That disruption closed off 100,000 square miles of airspace for around three hours.

But that’s all peanuts compared to this latest failure. It will be weeks, possibly even a month, before Chicago Center is up and operational once again.  Meanwhile, adjacent centers are trying to pick up the slack and Chicago Center controllers are being assigned to various TRACONs to handle what part of the load they can.

By the way, we’ve already tasted the devastating failures of at least one of Robert Poole’s ideas — the destruction of this nation’s Flight Service Stations and the services they once provided to general aviation pilots. Read:

During the Cold War no one would have stood for consolidation and privatization of such vital national defense infrastructure, yet we have bought-and-paid-for politicians, “think” tank “experts,” and corporations pushing this agenda every day. Why? Because there’s a lot of money to be had, that’s why.  Government money.  Tons of it. And these people don’t care about national defense, so this latest lesson will be conveniently swept under the door mat once public memory has faded.

But rest assured that this lesson has not been lost on those who would do us harm. They now know our vulnerabilities. They’re probably counting on those vulnerabilities to exploit them in the future. And I’m sure those same people are sitting back, planning and plotting, and all the while cheering on the likes of Robert Poole, the Reason Foundation, and Congressman John Mica, and wishing them all the best of success in their endeavors. Because, as we all know, greed is good . . . if you’re looking to exploit an enemy. That’s why the standard FAA ATC sign you saw above — the one so prominently displayed outside every FAA ATC facility in the nation — should read:

How FAA Warning Signs SHOULD Read

How FAA Warning Signs SHOULD Read



Filed under Aviation Safety, Opinion Piece, R. Doug Wicker

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.


Filed under Aviation Safety