FAA held a customer service seminar last week in Chicago. I always chuckle a bit when someone combines the FAA acronym with anything that even sounds like customer service. Sorry PT & DB. But then, today’s my birthday so I suppose most readers will indulge me a bit of curmudgeonly prose (and no, I won’t tell you how old I am other than explaining it’s a zero year).
Honestly, with only a few rare exceptions, I have found FAA folks to be good at what they do, both controllers and inspectors. However – you knew this was coming – I doubt I’d ever make the leap to call the services FAA provides as “good customer service.” They are simply two entirely different concepts, one involving the worker bees, the other involving management.
To me, one of the dumbest decisions the agency ever made was contracting out small towers to private corporations. I know the agency supposedly saved money in the process, but the customer service aspect for users was lost in the translation.
Case in point
I was flying a Citation back to of one of my favorite airports in Chicago, Waukegan (UGN) a few years back on a Part 135 charter trip. Waukegan Tower is privately-run contract tower, although it is federally controlled, whatever that means to folks in airplanes. Midwest ATC runs UGN tower to be precise, the same folks helping the U.S. government rebuild ATC in some Middle East countries. Midwest also ran the now closed Chicago Meigs Field contract tower until Mayor Daley shut the place down a few years back.
My Citation trip took place about a year after WGN-Radio personality Bob Collins was killed in a midair collision while inbound to Waukegan. He was talking to Waukegan controllers at the time of the crash, as was I. Having spent many years on the other side of the microphone, I try my best to form a picture of the airspace in my mind when I fly to make sure I don’t end up like Mr. Collins.
This day I canceled my IFR flight plan out over Lake Michigan and proceeded VFR to the airport from the southeast calling Waukegan Tower along the way. I heard a single-engine Cessna call inbound from the north about the same time. He was much closer to the airport. I slowed the airplane to about 160 knots just to play it safe since I knew it would be tough to see traffic in 6 miles of visibility. The tower cleared me to land first and I asked about the traffic. They told me he was clear. As I rolled out on final for Runway 23, I saw the Cessna headed right for me. We missed, but not by much.
I called the FAA FSDO at Chicago Dupage Airport since some of the other charter captains warned me that talking to the people at UGN tower would be a waste of time. That’s when I was told that although FAA funds the contract tower program, the agency has very little operational control over those facilities. This was a few years back, so I’m hoping the policy has changed.
Now comes another deal at UGN, this one involving a friend of mine. A deal is controller lingo for running airplanes too close together. The tower cleared two aircraft for takeoff at the same time on intersecting runways. One single-engine Cessna was N405ES, and the other N408ES. Two aircraft with similar callsigns on the same frequency is an accident looking for a place to happen, trust me. You can watch the replay of the video and the animation put together by FAA’s Alaska Region. If this doesn’t scare the “x”rap out of you as either a controller or a pilot, I don’t know what will.
No doubt you can pick out who might have handled things differently on the frequency once you’ve listened a few times. Yes, even my pal in 405ES had some responsibility. Most of the responsibility rests with the tower controller unfortunately. She made a mistake.
The most interesting part of this process was that after the FAA folks interviewed my friend to gather facts, he never heard another word about the issue … ever. Not even to this day.
Where’s the Service?
Granted it’s pretty awkward to call someone and say “Opps. Sorry we almost killed you the other day. But we’re sorry.” At least that would have acknowledged the problem. That conversation never took place. It never came from FAA and it never came from Midwest ATC. That’s because the folks that run FAA, like the folks that run Midwest simply don’t think that way. But that kind of empathy for people is what makes for great customer service. It’s not too late Midwest and FAA. You have the phone numbers of the people involved. How about doing this because it’s the right thing to do or especially since UGN tower has had a few other deals I know of.
One more fact. Midwest ATC was the company that ran Meigs Tower when they had a midair collision in 1997. There was one controller on duty alone in the cab at the time. How much money did that save the agency? I wonder if they called anyone on that crash.