ATC, Again


Even in the worst of times, the men and women working the scopes and the frequencies at your friendly neighborhood ATC facility usually refrained from allowing politics or personal opinions from interfering with their official duties. This was true following the August 1981 PATCO strike, during peak airline delays and congestion in 2000 and 2001 and in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. In fact, late 2001 saw unprecedented cooperation between controllers and operators alike as we all struggled with airspace requirements and traffic levels that changed on a daily basis. Thats the way it should be: professionals working together to get the job done as efficiently and as safely as possible.

But all of us are staring at some rough weather approaching. As recent coverage by Aviation Safetys online sister publication AVweb details, the controller workforce appears more unproductive, self-centered, vocal and combative than at any point since mid-1981. Meanwhile, the flight service station workforce is in the middle of a fight that could lead to its function being contracted out to the lowest bidder, even as those men and women are being called upon to do more with less. And the FAA recently absorbed a sizeable cut in its budget for new ATC equipment. All of this is occuring at a time when the number of scheduled flights is rising to near-peak levels and the FAAs ability to commit breathtaking feats of mismanagement continues. Dont get me started about controller skill levels at smaller towers and approach facilities.

The emerging friction between controllers and the FAA is based on the calendar: The 25-year mark since the 1981 PATCO strike is approaching and the controllers brought aboard in the immediate aftermath are nearing retirement eligibility. The controllers union, NATCA, is campaigning at the FAA, on Capitol Hill and in the media for a new hiring effort. The FAA, predictably, tells anyone who will listen that things are fine, there are enough controllers in the pipeline and that safety will not be compromised. The agency sang that same refrain early and often after the mid-September failure of both primary and backup communication systems serving the Los Angeles ARTCC. That event left controllers and operators unable to talk to each other until area TRACONs pitched in and has been attributed to someones failure to reset a computer clock.

Putting aside the reasonableness of having an automated communications system depend on humans to reset its clock before taking down an entire ARTCC, the point is that changes are coming to the FAA services on which many operators have come to depend. The first, most visible changes will likely appear in the next 18 months or so as flight service stations are reduced in number and replaced by contractors. How that will work, say, in the Washington, D.C., area-where most operators must telephone an AFSS to merely file a flight plan-is anyones guess. As controllers begin to retire and as those who remain feel the crunch of doing more with less, the bad old days of the General Aviation Reservation system and widespread delays may return. All parties involved should keep system safety and efficiency as their top priority, but as government strives to simplify itself and places increasing burden on users, thats not likely to happen.

Lets be careful out there.

-Jeb Burnside


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