Can I Retire Yet?

I’m sure it’s obvious to my few, but faithful, readers, that I have not been able to get to my keyboard in quite some time.  I probably should take a page from Don Brown‘s book and retire so I can find some time to do more writing.   Unfortunately, despite my having over 20 years ATC, I’m still not eligible yet, so it’s going to be awhile yet.

I’ve written in the past about “dumbing down” air traffic control.  In fact, in my last post I stated:

There are times that I seriously wonder how insulted I should get at the lack of thought that goes into these “thoughts” of improvements.  There is only so much you can dumb down the job.  I think we’re there, people, and it’s not a pretty sight up ahead.

Did you hear about the latest incident at DCA where there was what appears to be a breakdown in communication between tower and TRACON during a runway change?  First, let me make it clear that I know no more about what actually happened than what has been in the press.  Second, I’m not familiar enough with their operation to know whether or not their own internal Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) were followed, although I would guess not.  Third, I do know that I received phone calls on my off-duty hours from fellow controllers telling me about the “new” procedures nationwide even though I’m not the NATCA representative or a member of management.

As I mentioned earlier, I have over 20 years ATC experience and I have safely run countless opposite direction operations in accordance with Chapter 3 of the 7110.65, at both smaller and larger facilities.  In that time, I have also seen many kneejerk reactions to incidents by the Agency – this Notice is another one.

Honestly, I’m not sure where to start.  So many points to make and I would not be surprised if I miss any.  Maybe I should just run through the Notice point by point…

The front line manager (FLM)/controller-in-charge (CIC) in the initiating facility is responsible for making all verbal coordination required to accomplish an opposite direction departure or arrival.

On paper, sounds good.  However, usually the people most likely to have a real clue as to what is going on and whether or not an opposite direction operation is advisable are the ones working the traffic.  If we must have something, then it should be the FLM/CIC should be the ones coordinating the details of last in/first out of runway changes.

All coordination must be on a recorded line and must state “opposite direction.”

Very good, in my opinion, and most controllers do this regardless of what the regulations say.  However, this would have done absolutely nothing to aid the DCA incident in not occurring as, from what I read, neither the tower, nor the TRACON, believed they were running an opposite direction.

All coordination must include call-sign, aircraft type, and arrival or departure runway.

Overly restrictive – aircraft type really isn’t necessary the vast majority of the time – and does not account for when only one runway is in use or if a controller has sent the other a flight strip via a drop tube.

The provisions of FAA Order JO 7110.65, Paragraph 7-2-1, Visual Separation, cannot be applied when conducting opposite direction operations.

Really???  Many smaller facilities use this paragraph when running pattern operations.  One more tool from the toolbox gone.  Tell you what, why don’t we just get rid of visual separation altogether?  Can’t see that happening, though, as it would slow down operations at the “big” facilities for arrivals. [That was sarcasm, in case you missed it.]

Opposite Direction Departures.
1. The tower must verbally request all opposite direction departures with the terminal radar approach control (TRACON)/en route facility and state aircraft call sign and type.
2. The TRACON/en route facility must suspend all arrivals until the tower verbally advises opposite direction departure is airborne.
3. The departing aircraft must be airborne and turned to avoid all conflicts prior to an arrival reaching a 10-mile final.

Again, aircraft type is unnecessary – geez, most of the time in smaller facilities, call sign is also unnecessary.  At best, you only need one or the other and it really should be up to the controller to decide what is important to relay based on normal local operations.

10-miles is excessive, even with jets.  Do I really need 10 miles between a Cessna and a Cherokee?

“Verbally advises” wastes time if you have radar coverage to the ground.

Suspending all operations?  Guess it’s time to get rid of opposite direction with visual separation.  Oh, wait, some of the larger facilities use opposite direction operations on their midshifts for noise abatement.

Opposite Direction Arrivals.
1. The TRACON/en route facility must verbally request all opposite arrivals with the tower and state aircraft call sign and type.
2. The tower must stop all departures on the opposite direction runway until the opposite direction arrival has landed.
3. Any departing aircraft must be airborne and turned to avoid all conflicts prior to the opposite direction arrival reaching a 10-mile final.
4. The tower may not resume normal operations on the opposite direction runway until the aircraft has landed.

See above.

David Grizzle, Chief Operating Officer, Air Traffic Organization, in his memo dated yesterday, wrote:

The only exception to this order is an emergency situation or an FAA flight inspection.

I’m betting Mr. Grizzle would not consider thunderstorm activity as an emergency situation.  There are times when there is only one way in or out to an airport due to weather…and 10 miles between opposite direction operations would allow the “hole” time to close.  And if this is the new rule, then as far as I’m concerned, it should apply to FAA flight inspections as well.

I have some questions that I bet I won’t be hearing the answers to.  In the recent “incidents”, what was the experience level of the controllers as well as the supervisors?  What was the staffing like?  Was there training occurring?  What was the trainee/CPC ratio at the respective facilities?

We just passed the 31st anniversary of the PATCO strike and the firing of over 11,000 controllers.  We’re still in the midst of a staffing crisis that the FAA created themselves with the White Book years and also with their failure to listen to NATCA and hire new people in advance of the predictable and foreseeable retirement wave.  What do the past strike and the current staffing crisis have in common?  A learning curve for new controllers without the benefit of a fully-staffed, well-rested, seasoned workforce to keep them out of trouble.

The difference between then and now?  The internet.  Things like FlightAware,, YouTube, news websites, and blogs .  The learning curve isn’t necessarily any greater today than it was back then; it’s just more visible to the public now.  So we have things like detailed taxi instructions, greatly reduced usage of Taxi Into Position and Hold (or Line Up and Wait), and no more opposite direction operations.  Most of which actually reduces safety and efficiency, but to the Monday morning quarterbacks, the Agency looks like they’re doing something, anything, to improve safety.  In the meantime, controllers will be doing what they always do for the users – as much as they can within the restrictions to provide what service(s) they’re allowed.

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It’s the (Lack of) Thought That Counts

Sorry I haven’t written lately; I, unfortunately, have to say that more often than I like.  There’s been something, though, that’s been gnawing at me for awhile now and I would finally like to get it out and into the blogosphere.

The FAA, in its infinite wisdom, a few months ago gave us these 2-sided “reminder cards.”  If I uploaded correctly, you should be able to click on either picture to see a larger view.

At first glance, to the uninitiated, uninformed or just plain clueless, these cards might seem like a good idea – color reminders of what it is we do each day.  Let us take a closer look.

I’m not sure where to start with all this.  Let’s go with the easy.  The Agency has been issuing us new identification cards for over a year now, in the hopes of eventually moving things over to a more centralized ID system.  These cards are meant to fit in card holders similar to these which only hold one card and are a bit bulky.  So many of us who don’t yet need to use the badge holders, don’t.  If you look closely at the Safety Alert card, you’ll notice that it is meant to slip over a lanyard.  The two cards aren’t quite compatible.  Right hand, left hand, neither working/talking with each other; it’s a bit scary at how often that happens the higher you go in the hierarchy in the FAA.  Especially when you consider at the lower levels (i.e. operational floor), how critical it is for what we do daily to know what the “other” hand is doing.

Second, the cards are red with black and yellow printing.  Not the most conducive for reading in a dark radar room.  If you’ve still got yours and haven’t pitched it in the circular file like many, try it; you won’t like it.

Third, if you need a reminder hanging around your neck that our first priority is the separation of aircraft and the issuance of safety alerts, you should be looking for a job elsewhere.  Don’t waste our time.

Fourth, someone in the FAA thought it was necessary to define priority, but highlighted “first.”  Not very intuitive, methinks.

Fifth, it really is not a bad idea to have a reminder (cheat sheet, as we call them) of some of the safety alert phraseology around.  However, to have it on a card that you can’t read in the dark is not very smart.  You want your cheat sheets in a position that maximizes your scan…i.e. next to your scope, not hanging around your neck requiring additional heads-down time.  If a controller is in a position where they need the phraseology, the LAST thing you want is for s/he to be looking down at their chest instead of the scope.

So, at first glance, it looks like the Agency was attempting to do something proactive, semi-innovative or something like that to highlight the importance of what we do.  However, if it was ever someone who was operational who came up with the idea, they obviously haven’t been in the operation for quite some time.

There are times that I seriously wonder how insulted I should get at the lack of thought that goes into these “thoughts” of improvements.  There is only so much you can dumb down the job.  I think we’re there, people, and it’s not a pretty sight up ahead.

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Maybe It’s Just Me

Well, supposedly there’s a deal in the works to pass another short-term extension for the FAA to operate.  Note the title:  FAA Shutdown: Senate to Pass House Bill, End Shutdown, yet the URL is

“This agreement does not resolve the important differences that still remain,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday in a statement. “But I believe we should keep Americans working while Congress settles its differences, and this agreement will do exactly that.”

Funding for the FAA was held “hostage,” as Reid said, because of a provision in the House bill that cut $16.5 million in subsidies to rural airports, a provision Senate Democrats staunchly opposed. While the Senate bill will keep the House’s cuts, it also gives Treasury Secretary Ray LaHood the authority to grant waivers allowing some of the subsidies to continue.

The short-term bill will extend funding through Sept. 16.

President Obama, who has called the stalemate another “self-inflicted wound on the economy,” issued a statement today supporting Reid’s agreement to end the shutdown.

“I’m pleased that leaders in Congress are working together to break the impasse involving the FAA so that tens of thousands of construction workers and others can go back to work. We can’t afford to let politics in Washington hamper our recovery, so this is an important step forward,” Obama said in the statement.

This article states (title: Reid: Congress reaches deal to end FAA shutdown):

The bill includes language that gives the transportation secretary the authority to continue subsidized service to the 13 communities if he decides it’s necessary.

Democrats said they expect the administration to effectively waive or negate the cuts.

“I just know that the White House has provided assurances that they (the communities) will be held harmless,” said a Senate Democratic leadership aide who asked not to be named because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the deal.

Truth is, I’m not sure what is happening.   Where is the language for the waivers?  Was the language there to begin with?  Is it somehow being added?  How?  Who is waiving the provisions?  The White House?  The DOT Secretary?  Was it a deal or an acceptance?  How can you reach a deal with someone who isn’t there?

I’m very glad for the workers that get to go back to work (and their families).  I’m exceedingly glad that the airlines aren’t going to be able to continue to use the situation to pad their bottom lines at the expense of the American public.

But I don’t see this as the “victory” people are claiming it is.  I feel like I was just held up at gunpoint and instead of just handing over the keys to my car, I walked the robbers to it ten rows over, unlocked it for them…and offered to drive.

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History Repeating Itself?

Today is the 30th Anniversary of the PATCO strike.  Regardless of whether you believe they were right or wrong, the controllers of PATCO stood up for what they believed in.  Don Brown wrote this post this morning and WWVB had this to say.  With the benefit of hindsight, Reagan’s firing of air traffic controllers gave big business the “permission” they needed to get even more serious about union-busting.

Had he not done that, where would we be now as a country?  Would our collective wages and benefits be better?  Would it be easier for families to live on one income?  Would our workplaces be safer?  Would businesses actually be doing better because there would be more disposable income (and vacation time for those workers to spend that extra income)?

Seems to me our current President and the Democratic leaders are giving a similar “permission” to the Republican/Tea Party types lately with the debt ceiling/budget fiascos.  Now Ray LaHood and Randy Babbitt are suggesting that the Senate accept the House version of FAA Reauthorization because the House has picked up its toys and gone home for the rest of the summer – their own little mini-strike.  Can’t conduct meaningful business if they’re not there.  Meanwhile, those still left to do business are on a mini-strike of their own – letting their backbones turn to mush.

So who really is PATCO and who is President Reagan in our current scenario?

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Hard Choices

I recently wrote about the furlough of 4,000 FAA employees.  Delta and United raised their rates to reflect the difference in aviation taxes the FAA is no longer authorized to collect.  Consumers who choose those airlines are, in essence, helping the fat cats get richer and helping those same fat cats send tens of thousands of families into a position where they’ll need their own personal debt recovery plan.  How would you like to explain to your mortgage and utility companies that, uhhhh, Congress won’t let me work?

Don Brown wrote about a choice President Obama could make today, but, unfortunately, he probably won’t.  Paul Krugman, a leading economist, recently wrote this and this.  Robert Reich wrote this.

Democratic leaders made a choice to accept the “deal” because the threat of not raising the debt ceiling was the greater evil.  Republican leaders made a choice to hold this evil over the American public’s heads for so many reasons – for the uninformed: misguided reasons; for the informed:  just really bad reasons.

We still don’t have an FAA Reauthorization Bill.  Congressional game-playing has resulted in millions of dollars being lost for nothing more than posturing.  Families, businesses and communities are experiencing a loss of income for no other reason than someone trying prove a point.  The American public seems to only see “debt ceiling,” “balanced budget,” and “no new taxes.”  I’m wondering how long it will take before the absolute folly of the past few weeks really makes the history books.

I suggest a hard choice that Randy Babbitt, FAA Administrator, and Ray LaHood, DOT Secretary, should consider making.  Shut the FAA down.  No FAA Reauthorization bill to operate, no aviation services.  Let all the towers stand empty and the radar rooms sit in total darkness.  Tell us not to show up to work; we’re all furloughed.  Issue stop work orders for ALL our contractors, from instructors to window cleaners.  Let the pain travel faster and harder throughout the country as the absolute reality of how important the FAA is to the bottom lines of everyone in this country.  Let everything travel via truck.  No more Next Day Air, Second Day Air.  Let prices on everything rise as the increased costs get passed onto the consumer immediately.  (Think not?  Just look at how fast Delta and United raised their ticket prices.)

Why not?  It appears to be good enough for some of our Congressional types; let’s just follow their so-called “leadership.”   It seems to me that if it’s appropriate for Congress to set the standard, it should be more than enough reason for Randy and Ray to follow that “standard.”

Now, Randy and Ray, I’m sure, won’t make that choice – they’d lose their jobs.
Oh, wait, those Congressional types won’t lose their jobs anytime soon for their bad choices.  Not quite a level playing field, now is it?

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Further Down the Rabbit Hole

By now, anyone who has more than a passing interest in aviation knows that we are still waiting for an FAA Reauthorization Bill.  I’ve lost count of the “short-term” extensions, but I’m pretty sure it was the 20th that just expired.  Without an extension or a real fully-fleshed out Reauthorization Bill, the FAA isn’t able to collect Airport and Airway Trust Fund taxes.  So now we have a furlough situation of unknown duration for 4,000 FAA employees.

Those facing furloughs are victims of a partisan stalemate over several relatively minor issues that have stymied passage of a long-term FAA reauthorization bill. Among those issues: Ground rules for unionization in the airline and railroad industries, and funding levels for subsidized air service to small towns.

Ground rules for unionization…the sticking point there is if you don’t vote, your vote doesn’t count.  Right-wingers want your non-vote to count as  a no.  Funny, I wonder how many of them would have been elected to office if all the votes that didn’t occur during their election counted as a no.  Apathy does not and should not equate to a negative vote; it’s simply apathy…and a completely different issue.

To further complicate matters, the debate over the debt ceiling could create widespread reductions-in-force, not just in the aviation arena, but government-wide.

Meanwhile, any agreement tied to the lifting the ceiling could require significant cuts in agency operating budgets. How large such cuts would be, exactly where they would fall and when they would take effect all are unknown at this point. The current fiscal year now has just two months remaining, so most if not all of the cuts likely would fall in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, and in later years.

Large-scale cuts could cause agencies to impose large-scale furloughs. At some point, agencies might decide they need to lay off employees, which would invoke a separate process called reductions in force.

Smaller government does not equate to better service and efficiency, it just means greater frustration and longer delays for the users (whether it is the person on Medicare who needs questions answered or the newly bereaved spouse applying for Social Security benefits) and ultimately higher costs for services.  On the aviation side, can you say user fees?

And this time, user fees are not simply an agenda being shoved at us by another piece of our own industry the way the airlines came at us a few years ago.  This time it’s coming from the folks we sent to Washington to represent us.  The reason’s clear. The nation’s in debt up to it’s ass and politicians are looking to pounce on some one group that can ante up some cash … and most likely not fight back too hard.  And this time, general aviation is squarely in their sights.

Let’s look at this for a moment: “politicians are looking to pounce on some one group that can ante up some cash … and most likely not fight back too hard.”  We’ve got a serious number of politicians that won’t consider raising taxes on the individuals who make millions and billions of dollars per year (and who were significantly responsible for getting us in this mess to begin with), but it’s absolutely okay to them to consider cutting services and aid to the poverty-stricken and middle class America in a politically ideological debate.  Guess we’re just not important enough to them…or their political reelection coffers.

So while we’ve got those employees furloughed, we’ve also just put out of work a number of those in the private sector…most notably the construction industry who were building new air traffic control towers.  Oh, by the way, it’s entirely possible that there are clauses in all of those contracts that require the FAA to pay penalties for THEIR delays in the projects.  I certainly hope it doesn’t come under an “Act of God” clause – I’d hate for some of our elected leaders to have more of a God complex than they already do.

I recently watched portions of a PBS production on Prohibition.  One thing that struck me was the “unintended consequences” that resulted because of the Eighteenth Amendment.  Those that were certain that the righteous morality of outlawing alcohol would create a more socially responsible America were instead responsible for creating a downturn in morality in the country.

Prohibition turned law-abiding citizens into criminals, made a mockery of the justice system, caused illicit drinking to seem glamorous and fun, encouraged neighborhood gangs to become national crime syndicates, permitted government officials to bend and sometimes even break the law, and fostered cynicism and hypocrisy that corroded the social contract all across the country…

The film raises vital questions that are as relevant today as they were 100 years ago – about means and ends, individual rights and responsibilities, the proper role of government and finally, who is — and who is not — a real American.

I’m not an economist, but I certainly can see that the actions of Congress are hurting far more people than they’re helping by not raising the debt ceiling.  Which now begs the question, are we facing unintended consequences by those who refuse to raise the debt ceiling or are they, in reality, intended consequences by those in power and the American public isn’t seeing the forest for the trees?

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Blakey – Blech!

Some in the aviation world may have heard that Marion Blakey, former FAA Administrator, is slated to receive an award.  It crossed my mind to write down and share my thoughts about it, but the truth is, I can’t stand the woman.  We’re still trying to undo the damage to the National Airspace System (NAS) that she wrought during her tenure at the FAA…and forestall the damage she will still wreak, in some fashion, in her CEO position at Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), trying to contract out as much of the NAS to private industry as she can to increase AIA’s members paychecks while decreasing safety.

The woman had the opportunity to really earn the award that, for some reason unfathomable to me, the National Aeronautical Association (NAA) is planning to give her.  She could have gotten ahead of the retirements that any reasonable, thinking person could see coming (1981 + 25 = 2006), but instead she chose to take actions that would decimate the workforce, attempting to get the pay scales down to where private industry could earn big profits if they took over the NAS.   She chose to contract out Flight Service, so now many pilots have to pay to get full and complete pre-flight briefings or file flight plans if they want to get anywhere close to the level of service they had previously received from area-familiar government employees.  She chose to contract out ownership of parts of the NAS, so that the Agency tasked with aviation public safety on a 24/7 schedule was now a customer awaiting service calls when equipment didn’t work as it should, when it should.

For controllers, safety isn’t a budget line item to be cut simply so that money can be made by those who care about those budget line items.  For most of us, safety is a calling, a mantra, the reason we do what we do…and why we are very proud and protective of what we do and why we do it.

But what I really want to say isn’t family-friendly and would probably come across as ranting, so I’ll refrain from continuing further.

Luckily, calmer pens (or keyboards) than mine have said, much better than I could, much of what should be said.  Take the time to check out Don Brown’s post and the open letter Praxis Foundation wrote to the National Aeronautical Association. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

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Worth Reading

I may not have had much time lately to put down some original thoughts, but luckily others have.

WWVB recently posted this.

And many thanks to Praxis Foundation who posted the link to this article.  My favorite quotes are [emphasis is mine]:

Yet it isn’t true, as a general rule, that privatization shrinks the public sector. When investor demand for high returns is combined with the natural monopolies of public assets, what often results instead is citizens finding themselves saddled with high fees and poor service.

Even more perniciously, selling infrastructure such as toll roads puts the coercive power of the state in the hands of private actors. We have great public assets built by prior generations. We should and could be building a better country for our children, rather than liquidating what we have.

That period was unique in its political alliance between labor unions and capital-intensive industries that provided a continuously rising standard of living for most Americans. American firms had no rivals internationally, so free trade meant higher sales and profits for all.

Privatization doesn’t actually make something private; it simply divides risks between public and private entities.

Ultimately, of course, we will have no choice but to rebuild our infrastructure or risk social collapse. It’s not just the disintegrating bridges and extreme weather. Recent global supply chain disruptions suggest that certain parts of corporate America may turn toward a pro-infrastructure posture out of self-interest.

Meanwhile, the ideological fight is not over whether to spend more on infrastructure. It’s whether we should privatize what’s left.

Like I said, in my opinion, worth reading.

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More from The Tombstone Agency

For your convenience, all three links in one place for R. Doug Wicker’s blog series, How Contracting Out Gets People Killed.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

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The Costs of NextGen Keep Rising

Praxis Foundation asked this question several days ago:

Is anybody concerned that the GPS system can be rendered unusable by a 42dBw transmitter in an adjacent spectrum? Is it prudent to build a no-backup, global system that can be rendered unusable by a miscreant hobbyist that might not be a law-abiding American?

Praxis is talking about one of the core components of the FAA’s version of NextGen.  I wrote about my concerns on the same subject at least once, here.

Yesterday, Praxis kindly posted the Aviation Week article re: USAF Decisions On GPS IIIB Could Affect FAA, which had these tidbits (Note:  According to the article, Mr. Frye is the GPS III capability insertion manager at Lockheed Martin):

“We are beginning to think maybe if we go to two crosslinks, we can reduce the cost of that crosslink network, still provide most of the function, but not do some of the wonderful things we were expecting in IIIC such as supporting the integrity operations, which was an FAA certification issue,” Frye said. “It is becoming clear that the FAA is probably not going to certify the GPS constellation for FAA-certified flight safety operations … We have done some homework, and while we can’t meet the desired performance for autonomous navigation, we can do very well on two crosslinks.”

“Given the experience [the FAA] was having with the WAAS system, no one believes there is a practical way for the FAA to certify the GPS constellation,” he says. “It would probably make sense to have a two-tier solution. Have GPS be what it is, maintain WAAS for those that need it and not drive that cost into every one of those GPS satellites.”

For those readers who aren’t familiar, WAAS is the Wide Area Augmentation System.  If you check the FAA’s website, it doesn’t mention that it’s a ground-based system that augments GPS.  It’s got a pretty, little graphic that, if you’re paying attention, shows ground-based units, but given all their pie-in-the-sky proclamations [pun intended] about how NextGen is going to get rid of ground-based systems, I guess it’s understandable why they wouldn’t be more honest.  Can’t have that, can we?

But, wait, those of us who have been around awhile know that WAAS was never intended to be precision-like, but LAAS (Local Area Augmentation System) was.  It’s been renamed to GBAS, Ground Based Augmentation System.

Frye said, “we can’t meet the desired performance for autonomous navigation.” Yet one of the major selling points of NextGen is self-separation of aircraft.  Lockheed Martin is concerned about “driving cost into every one of those GPS satellites”, which correlates directly into their profits and may ultimately adversely affect aviation safety if NextGen, as the FAA and JPDO currently envision it, gets implemented.  Reread the article and you might pick up that they want to reduce the functionality to reduce costs…a recurring theme.

Sounds to me like Lockheed Martin is starting to bail supporting NextGen if it’s going to hurt their bottom line.  That’s a problem when you contract out safety services…no guarantees that your contractors will renew the contract.

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