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, LiveATC.net, 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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One Response to Can I Retire Yet?

  1. Joe says:

    “why don’t we just get rid of visual separation altogether? Can’t see that happening…”
    Brilliant!

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