To Air Traffic Controllers, "a Deal" is an Ugly Phrase

By Robert Mark on January 15th, 2008

To most people, the word deal implies something too good to miss … think, “Let’s Make a Deal,” or “No Big Deal.”Let's Not Make A Deal Logo

But in aviation, and air traffic control specifically, a deal is an ugly gremlin of a phrase that implies a problem – a big problem – to be avoided at all costs. To an air traffic controller, a deal means that at some point in time, the standard required separation – up, down, left or right – between two or more aircraft, or between an aircraft and a vehicle on the ground has been lost.

That’s not good.

Sometimes a deal, seems too inane to bear mentioning, like when the pilots of an airplane taxiing after landing see a truck crossing the runway half a mile down. If the airplane’s moving at 20 knots, it’s still technically a deal for the controller who let the truck invade the runway, but safety wasn’t really an issue.

But in other cases, the situation is much more serious, as we saw in Atlanta on Friday when a departing 757 missed a regional jet that crossed the runway in front of it on takeoff. Experts say they missed with about three seconds room to spare.

In either case, some air traffic controller was taken out of the control tower or radar room and made to answer for their mistake.

In the most simple case, their supervisor would probably counsel them to be more careful. In the most serious cases, the controllers are often suspended from work … that is if they haven’t decided to take time off on their own to cope with the anxiety of a close call.

Those kinds of life and death decisions are what we pay controllers for though, and we expect them to make those decisions correctly every time.

But too, as we would with a pilot, we should not simply be looking at the mistakes controllers make. We should be asking why the number of close calls is rising quickly … up 500 percent in the past few months alone.

As I mentioned on Friday, the numbers of controllers retiring is outpacing the training of their replacements, especially at the busiest airports. Beside the loss of experienced air traffic controllers, we are also losing the cream-of-the crop in trainers for the new people. That’s how controllers learn … on-the-job with someone looking over their shoulder while they learn. The promise of new technology to make controller’s more efficient is still just a dream and likely to remain so for some time to come because FAA leadership seems to be experiencing a service vacuum at present.

What Air Travelers Need to Know & Why They Should Care

The number of close calls is rising at a rate that FAA seems unable to stem. FAA will certainly say there is no research to prove that fatigued controllers – most are working mandatory six day weeks – has ever been proven as the cause of an accident. At least not yet, although the crash in Lexington certainly seemed to point to fatigue as a contributing factor.

The real problem is that FAA does not seem to be getting the message that their current solution for the controller shortage isn’t enough.

If this collision potential was tied to tired airline pilots, the Air Line Pilots union (ALPA) would be all over the issue banging on the doors of Congress to prevent such a tragedy … and I’d applaud them for their efforts. If the situation were bad enough at any airline, pilots would simply refuse to fly.

As government employees, air traffic controllers are banned from striking and just about any other sort of job action to rectify the chaos that’s brewing aloft. A bunch tried in 1981 and got their heads handed to them on a plate. Surprisingly, a new controller’s union sprang from the ashes of the 81′ PATCO strike just a few years later. Today, the problems NATCA controllers face are almost identical to those that PATCO controllers saw.

So what should these controllers do when their bosses refuses to negotiate for more people, better technology and a more reasonable work schedule? And yes, while I know that is what most unions always want, other unions don’t usually have my life in their hands.

What I find particularly irksome is that while these two groups argue it out – actually I guess they both need to be talking for it to be called an argument – the rest of us are at risk every time we fly.

If you’re safety aloft is important to you, there are some things you can try. First, visit the NATCA website for a glimpse at what these people do each day. Then use this one to locate your legislator and tell them you’re mad as hell and you’re not going to take it any more. Finally, keep your eyes open when you’re in the back of an airliner on the way to grandmas. If you see another airplane getting close, push your flight attendant call button and ask them to mention it to the pilots.

Hopefully you’ll have enough time.

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2 Responses to “To Air Traffic Controllers, "a Deal" is an Ugly Phrase”

  1. Zack - Retired ATC Says:

    Sorry but the die has been cast, we are doing the only thing we can – retiring ASAP. I left at 50, could have worked till 56 but would never even consider helping out the lying FAA management stooges. FTFTWMF! I no longer fly because I KNOW the TRUTH…it’s not safe anymore and it is getting worse every day!
    Thanks for your article, unfortunately it comes years too late.

  2. Robert Mark Says:

    So Zack. You think the FAA will do anything when two of them run together?

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