Air Traffic Control: Over-Controlling

By Robert Mark on December 20th, 2010

jetwhine tower The service delivered by some ATC facilities today is just not what it used to be in the old days before the PATCO strike. There, I said it.

Having been around in the old days – like the 70s – when traffic at most towers was insane by today’s standards, I think I have some solid data to measure against.

When I say service is not today what it used to be though, I don’t mean at the nation’s busy facilities. There’s no way controllers at JFK, ORD, ATL or LAX could push out as many airplanes per hour as they do unless they were operating with plenty of adrenalin in their system. Think shoot the gap, which translates into never wasting 60 seconds of airspace when you can put an airplane into it. Those kinds of results come from superb mentors teaching recruits how it’s done.

My focus here is on the less busy VFR towers, specifically the ones in the Chicago area where I still fly some 200 hours each year, airports like Chicago Executive (KPWK), Waukegan (KUGN), Kenosha (KENW) and DuPage (KDPA). Kenosha and Waukegan are contract towers run by a private company where the controllers are not NATCA members.

My gripe is that no one seems to be training these controllers how to move traffic … quickly. Sure being safe is important to the best ATC system in the world, but VFR towers should be delivering efficiency too.

Having spent 10 years of my life as an FAA controller myself, I have very little patience when I sitting in an airplane  holding short of the runway for takeoff, long after the landing aircraft has cleared the runway. I watched a Waukegan controller the other day clear a training aircraft for an “Immediate” takeoff when the nearest airplane was on a six mile final approach. There’s simply no reason for a controller to wait so long to clear the next airplane for takeoff in the first case, nor to rush a student like in the second.

On a four-mile VFR final in the Cirrus SR-22, the tower controller broke us out with a 360 degree turn for a Corvallis on a three-mile right base because he thought the Cessna was faster. And he was, but so what?

Why is it that no one taught this controller the differences between these airplanes, nor the obvious speed similarities? Or why did no one seem to teach this controller that a right base can’t beat a straight in. What happened to telling the guy on the base leg to follow the straight in and slow the heck down?

At Kenosha the other day, we were asked to run our patterns on the short runway 25 Left while the tower controller ran two helicopters on the longer right runway. Sure we needed the practice on the 3,300 foot runway, but it is simply beyond me why the controller told us there “would be little chance in the for seeable future,” of getting on the longer runway because of the helicopters. Why didn’t this controller understand that helicopters don’t need to run circuits on a 5,500 foot runway?

Before anyone assumes I’m simply grabbing at random events, I’ll tell you that this topic’s been brewing in my head for years actually. I doubt seriously that mine are isolated observations though. What irritates me about this lack of training is that all too many of my fellow pilots simply turn the other cheek and put up with it assuming this is as good as it gets. I think users have a right to expect service just as good at the smaller airports as they receive at the busier ones. I also think it makes the good controllers look bad.

I know full well that VFR towers are training facilities and that FAA is training right now at a feverish pace to replace folks who came in after the strike. But when it takes longer to get airborne at an airport when it runs 125,000 operations per year than it did when that same airport ran twice as much traffic, something’s wrong with the training program. How about someone mentioning that rattling off the ATIS at Warp-speed makes them incomprehensible to many pilots.

I wish I could say this less-flexible level of service only occurs at non-NATCA towers, but Chicago DuPage and Executive are FAA run towers.

I’ll listen. Tell me why users should be willing to accept slow service because controllers seem to have had less than demanding training programs at a VFR airport, especially when I’m sitting on the sidelines burning gas that now runs $7 a gallon at KPWK.

Rob Mark, editor

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94 Responses to “Air Traffic Control: Over-Controlling”

  1. Evan Says:

    Great post. As an airline pilot, I’ve noticed similar inefficiencies at large commercial airports as well.

  2. Eric Shank Says:

    Ever fly a GA prop into KMKE? I was approaching the field from the south in a 172. They were landing their jets on 1L, but rather than give me 1R, they made me fly 15 minutes out of my way to a 10 mile final for runway 7L. I guess they were worried that I would be unable to make a straight in for 1R and would somehow cross into the 1L approach path. If they had let me overfly the field and enter a left downwind for 7L they way they would at Midway, I could have saved myself $50 in aircraft rental fees!!!

  3. Rich Says:

    DPA is my base and I’ve noticed multiple occasions now that the tower has forgotten that they need to explicitly allow me to cross the second runway in a list. They remember that I can only be cleared to cross one at a time with the new rule change, but then never get back to me with the second clearance.

    One time the firetrucks were out doing, well, whatever it is they do at night when they go driving around and I was sitting there waiting to cross. Firetruck was sitting there waiting for me to cross. Stalemate. Finally the controller asks what the truck is waiting for and realizes what’s going on.

    Oh well…

  4. Ross Bennett Says:

    Great column. I fly out of KLEE in Central Florida. I have noticed too some of the same issues that you have brought up. They tell me that since they are non-Fed their company overlays rules that the Feds to not require. Things like Line up and Wait are not permitted at our field.

    BTW, I haved added you to my blogroll.

  5. Rodney Hall Says:

    What is worse than delays is when they controller really loses the big picture. As a student I was doing some towered airport work with my instructor. Wind was out of the northeast and we had just finished some touch a go practice on 07. We tell the tower we will be departing to the south. Tower has traffic, regional jets, taking off on 02. Tower tells us to turn LEFT which would take us across the end of 02 which would put us in danger of collision or wake turbulence (in a C172). We called the tower and requested a right turn. I learned a good lesson that day about not assuming the tower is right and not letting yourself be put in a potentially bad situation.

  6. harold willoby Says:

    I think its the caliber of the new people the faa is hiring. Theres no screen anymore and the traing is ” train to succeed” which means everybody checks out and nobody washes out. Also the punitive nature of the faa against veteran controllers doesnt help.

  7. Greg Says:

    I fly out of Anchorage, AK and we have the greatest controllers anywhere in the country. Of course, we’re a little behind the times up here. As a VFR/IFR GA pilot I can’t comment on much more than the “service” ethic of the controllers – and that can be pretty poor in the lower 48 (refusing flight following, having you ‘stand by’ for long long times, etc). In Alaska they’re great and I often wish I could do something for them to help them get recognition for the fantastic job they do.

  8. Ex-FAA Says:

    Unfortunately, the issue is more about the quality (or lack of it) of the controllers who are being hired to replace the controllers who replaced the PATCO controllers. There will always be the newly hired people who work hard to do a good job. Unfortunately, the FAA is pretty much down to hiring anybody who can fog a mirror these days. It’s all about numbers. Five experienced controllers retire, hire five newbies and count them as full journeymen. Now the FAA can say they are at full staffing. Trainees are certified with little or no regard for quality or standards. The bar has not been lowered. It has been thrown away. Remember, it’s about numbers, not quality. To be fair, there are probably 30% of the new hires that will make quality controllers if properly trained and given time to learn. Unfortunately, the 70% that should be terminated are not. Also, losses of separation that once got you retrained or terminated are no longer considered issues. Until there is a pile of metal, teeth and eyeballs on the ground…..don’t expect it to change. The people who removed quality from the equation in exchange for numbers and demographics are still running the show. I wouldn’t hold my breath for any significant changes.

  9. Tom Says:

    Sounds like a bit of a hit piece on the contract tower program. Read earlier in the week that average FAA controller made over $100K. Contract controllers make no where near that, but audits show they have a lower error rate, at argueably more difficult airfield environments. Not a controller, but I know NATCA has influenced to make several procedures, like taxi into position and hold, too labor intensive to be implemented at VFR towers.

  10. JM Says:

    I agree that things are way more inefficient than they were years ago in time, which is easily overlooked, & money. I fly out of the Northeast and more & more of the airports are adopting procedures that are not efficient at all. Things like make you hold short of a runway instead of putting you into position. When asked why the response is “we don’t do that here”. Another is putting you in a “gate hold” with IFR traffic even if you are VFR. I don’t care if there is delays or weather over a fix, I’m just going 20mi away & not going to talk to approach so why do I have to wait. I guess these practices are safer but lacking efficiency.

    You can make the money back but you can never get that time back.

  11. Sonny Says:

    I am sure that someone kind find some squawks in our ATC system, but I am of the opinion (especially concerning the wording), that this is a pro union article promoting the return of the likes of PATCO. Sorry, just the way I see it.

  12. Robert Mark Says:

    Quite a range of opinions for starters. For those of you – Sonny and Tom, I believe – I wasn’t trying to take a pro or anti-union stance. Nor was this an anti-contract tower piece. As I mentioned, KPWK and KDPA are FAA towered airports.

    In fact, I doubt the folks at the NATCA office in DC are ever happy to see people blog about ATC service issues.

    But there is a problem that I’ve noticed – and obviously it’s not just me – that the system is not as efficient as it could be, or used to be, at smaller airports.

    Part of the responsibility though falls on users I think. Just like in our school system, we get what we ask for. If we demand little and are willing to settle for whatever controllers dish out, then we have no right to expect any improvement.

  13. dmanuel Says:

    I too have noticed the lack of control quality, but it does not seem to be only at the tower. The other day the controller had us depart the VOR on a heading diverging 45 degrees away from the landing airport. I flew for a few minutes and not hearing much on the frequency, I asked why I was on this vector. Her response was you are following a Bonanza 15 miles east of the airport straight into 27. Now I am in a Cherokee 28 almost 10 miles west of the airport, flying further away. Having a good familiarity with the 7110.65 I replied first even if you turned me right at the airport, I cannot catch a Bonanza on a 15 mile final, even if I wanted to: second you could either aim me at the airport and put me on downwind and let the town break the tie or you could have used altitude separation until I saw the traffic and cleared me for the visual to follow the Bonanza. After a few seconds of stunned silence, she turned me toward the airport. I am beginning to think they sign these controllers off, after they learn one or two rules to move traffic, rather than use all the resources available.

  14. Freight Dawg Says:

    Honestly, as a Part 135 pilot flying the line. I agree. There have been multiple times where I am holding and not understanding why I have to wait. Sometimes I just want ATC to tell me why I have to wait and I will be more than happy to back off.

    Also, there is a certain controller around the area which I fly (Yes, I am purposefully leaving this part omitted) where that controller will read the riot act to a pilot just because they didn’t use proper phraseology.

    For instance,
    ATC: N12345 cleared to the ramp via alpha and bravo cross runway 27.
    N12345: Cleared to the ramp via alpha and bravo cross runway 27, 345.
    ATC: That was for N12345.

    You get the picture.

  15. Ex-FAA Says:

    My above comments really didn’t have anything to do with the union or PATCO. 1981 PATCO just defines the time line. The reality is that the “kids” being hired are not being vetted for aptitude or tested for ability. The FAA has taken the position that if we (the FAA) hired them, then they must be trained and certified. If they are not, it is the fault of the controllers doing the training. The FAA Academy training program has been so watered down as to make it nearly useless. Trainees who lack the basic skills are simply moved along down the road. It is not any different than passing a grade school student year after year when they can’t read. Next thing you know they are your doctor or airline captain. (I knew that would get someone’s attention)

  16. Another EX-FAA Says:

    Ex-FAA has posted twice above and he speaks the TRUTH.
    The new applicants sole prerequisite is to (as he stated) “fog a mirror”. Many, if not most are NOT interested in aviation, don’t care to ever fly, and are ONLY interested in “what’s in it for me?”.
    I retired because of “train to succeed”. I had 9 years in ARTCC’s and 16 in (used-to-be) level 5 TRACONS, and when I saw a minority female get ANOTHER extension when she already had 2,100 hours on her FIRST position, I asked for the first day I could get out and I LOVED the job… but we had to know something about aviation to get hired… I was a CFII and was stunned to find out what I did NOT know about ATC.

  17. Brian Hall Says:

    Nice article, but using NATCA to describe the FAA run facilities is inaccurate (although NATCA would like to think they run things). I was an FAA en route air traffic controller (until I retired last October)for 29 years and never did belong to NATCA which is a UNION. Many things that NATCA does and promote do not enhance the system nor help to increase capacity. Contract towers are run by one of three different companies in the lower 48. Most facilities can be reached by phone and appreciate honest criticism. Hope I helped educate you for your next rant.

  18. DMar Says:

    Hello all, yes things are a mess. I retire Jan 1 2010, 35 years. The system is weak and I cannot help carry it any longer. The day I could work and know my fellow controllers had my back is gone. Some trainees get recycled three times before they are certified and they really are not capable to do the job in traffic greater than light. OH! That means they had over 300 hours to certify. In the early days you would be gone if you did not show ability to certify once you had 80 hours. This is one position not the whole facility. My facility has about ten control positions. Do the math. How many hours to be fully qualified? Max time on each position should be 120 with a max extension of 50 percent. Those days are gone, so to reference the comments above and below. T-CAS saves the airborne aircraft but if youre on the ground keep your eyes open. I love working airplanes, I have been flying for 35 years also but its time to hang it up when the stress is created by watching incompetence every day not working the planes.

  19. Mike Jones Says:

    I’ve been flying since the ’70s also and want to take up for the controllers, who I think have a better attitude than the PATCO guys. We went into KGTU the other day and were tight on time before the published close for the FBO, the tower controller picked up the phone called the FBO to tell them we were inbound for fuel and was very gracious about it. Flying in and out of KDAL we get a lot of “awaiting IFR release”, they’re always thanking us for our patience when we don’t call them every 34 seconds wanting to know our status and you can tell they do what they can to move us out of the stack.

  20. Roy Warner Says:

    As a Patco Rehire that retired and worked as a contract instructor at the FAA Academy I think I am well qualified to agree with your point of view. In the 70’s we did not have the automated equipment that they have today and we worked harder with less. Now they have everything and some of them still can’t do much. A big problem is the washout rate. In the 70’s it was 60% and only the trainable were allowed to be trained. Now the washout rate is less than 1% and the FAA thinks they will catch on someday. Wishful thinking and a huge waste of taxpayer money. I am glad I am out of it for good.

  21. Centurion Says:

    As an OJTI at a small VFR tower in Cali, the people being hired are far less capable than even 4 years ago when i was hired. I love my job and I work with some good people but efficiency has been placed well behind safety… Not that it should EVER go in front but they should happily coexist. It is also important to understand that the ‘safety’ culture has changed and running aircraft down to separation minimums is frowned upon in some facilities as being ‘unsafe.’ Makes no sense to me but its not just the controllers’ ability (or lack thereof in some cases) but the mentality of the hierarchy… Traffic overall is also down and some controllers don’t know what busy traffic is… Makes it more difficult for us to train and leaves them in a bad position when they do get traffic… Can’t train someone for 2 yrs simply because we don’t see the traffic now that we might see a year from now or what ‘used’ to be mod-heavy traffic… As a CFII and having trained several people as CPCs… The culture has changed and the people coming in don’t show the same passion or ability… But apparently these are the people applying for the jobs…

  22. Stephen Riethof Says:

    EVERY generalization (including this one) is FAULTY!!

  23. Robert Mark Says:

    Stephen’s comment about generalization is a good one and one we should be all thinking about. From what I’m hearing though, I’m not sure this is much of a generalization. The “Train for Success,” agenda must be an embarrassment to everyone.

    Brian’s point abut NATCA is also a good one. Even I do tend to think of all towers as either contract or NATCA with nothing in between. I’m sure I’m not alone though.

    And per that earlier comment, I did send a link to this story to both public affairs at FAA and to Terry Bolerjack, the Quality Control man at Midwest ATC that runs Waukegan and Kenosha Towers.

  24. EX-FAA Says:

    I couldn’t agree more. As a controller from 10/69 – 10/78 we did move traffic more efficiently and with a lot less technology. Was able to leave the FAA prior to the PATCO strike and then suffered with less efficient Air Traffic Control through 30 years of corporate jet operations. With avgas at $5 bucks it’s hard to hold short with no traffic in sight!

  25. David Abbey Says:

    “Part of the responsibility though falls on users I think. Just like in our school system, we get what we ask for. If we demand little and are willing to settle for whatever controllers dish out, then we have no right to expect any improvement.”

    Rob, that’s why we need Jetwhine to speak up and get the conversation moving.

    It’s good you aren’t concerned about criticizing the union or certain facilities for a lack of efficiency. I like the beginning of the article where you talk about the ATC’s at JFK, ORD, ATL, LAX. Those guys are unbelievable.

    Do you think they’d be hearing from the carriers if they running a very inefficient operation at the major airports? Listening to ORD on is quite a treat.


  26. Gary T. O'Toole Says:

    The kids now do not have a sense of urgency. They know they will get extension after extension, so they don’t worry about it. They will whine about not being treated “FAIR”. If they knew that if they were not making progress, they could be terminated, they would shape up. They can’t study at home at all. They can’t remember frequencies and the like, yet they are all experts with the computer. Our facility management would not allow us, “Position and hold”. Do you think that didn’t mess me up after 31 years of using it. As for the pilots, hey you guys have really slacked off also. They need a vector from an airport 15 miles away to the main airport, can’t talk on the radio, say things like “with you at ninteen thousand”. Both sides have slacked off and it has hurt the overall efficency of the air traffic system and flying in general. I’m in my 36th year on the boards of an approach control and been flying for 33 with an ATP. Seen both sides and it is sliding.

  27. 767Bill Says:

    As a former PATCO controller, Aug 1981, who is retired from the airlines and is now flying the infamous slowtation I can tell you that I have forgotton more about ATC than they know today. When the controllers are using the ‘ring’ to separate planes, they are rlying on the computer, not thier abilty to actually separate planes. By doing this they end up with a 10 mile separation standard rather than the 5 miles as stipulated in the 7110.65, thier bible.

    In the old days there was a 60% washout rate, today they are trained to proficiency, thus the bar has been lowered, well below FL180.

    The other gripe I have is the lack of understanding of aircraft performance. Being forced down 216 miles from my destination really makes it hard to plan the fuel.

  28. Rambo Says:

    Separating airplanes has always been some controllers mentality. Directs, timely clearances, fuel efficiency as considerations only came when one’s trainor spoke up during those “learning opportunities.” “safe,orderly and expeditious” may not even be in the 7110.65 ATC manual anymore. Don’t generalize this since only hope is to support those trained to include “efficient” in daily operation. Sense of humor can be powerful in making efficiency a more prevalent practice. eg., “hello friend”

  29. Anse Says:

    I’m a retired controller and flying 400-500 hours a year in a small Cessna in the South. Hobby is the best. Others have all gone downhill using poor technique and absent correct phraseology. How many times so I have to hear the incorrect “Maintain 3000 FEET”, and “Radar contact, MAINTAIN VFR”?
    Someone is not doing their job but when I hear them working correctly I note the time. contact the manager, and send a letter of appreciation.

  30. irie Says:

    I have been a controller for 22 years at both VFR towers and at busy major airports. I have 1163 more days til retirement (yes I’m counting). Everything Ex-FAA says is true, and I can’t stand coming to work anymore. I’ve seen the system degrade on both sides of the mic.

    The airports where you can’t “line up and wait” were determined by the FAA, not NATCA. It really slows things down, but we are constantly dumbing things down for the new generation.

    Contract towers may seem to have a better safety record,but they also don’t have the multiple levels of management over their shoulder and not everything gets reported. If it did, they might lose their contract.

    As far as picky phraseology, I get in trouble if you don’t read it back. Omitting your call sign is not acceptable and I’ll get written up if I let you get away with it. You should hear how bad it’s gotten.

    It might work on the new kids, but pestering me or second guessing me won’t get you anywhere. It’s distracting and contributes to making the system less safe. There’s alot more going on than what you hear on the frequency.

    Union or non-Union,it makes no difference. Size doesn’t matter either. We have new hires off the street at all the major airports too. Management is pressured from above to not wash anyone out. Whe I retire,I’m driving everywhere.

    All that said, I encourage you to visit a tower or tracon (I don’t think you can get into a center) and see what the controllers are doing. Ask questions, give input. There are no familiarization trips anymore, so the new generation doesn’t know what’s going on in the cockpit anymore than you know what’s going on in the control room. We are in this endeavor together. Let’s get on the same side.

  31. irie Says:

    I meant second guessing as in who’s first, speed assignment, etc. By all means speak up if you see something wrong or have a question. In fact, I encourage you to always ask if unsure.


  32. Steve Says:

    I don’t disagree that there are a lot of newbie controllers out there who don’t know their ass from their elbow. I work with quite a few of them. But the majority of the problem comes from the litigious nature of our society. The FAA is afraid of being sued. Any extra help I can give to the pilot is wildly discouraged. Pushing spacing for efficiency is discouraged. Someone was mentioning position and hold? The union didn’t take that away, the FAA did, and made it so a facility manager has to justify getting a wavier to run it.

    Average controller salary? Yeah the veteran controllers make $100K+, but VERY few of the new hires do, based on the Bush administrations bullcrap attempt at a two tier pay scheme.

    I’ve been flying for 10 years, am a CFI, and an A&P. I promise you that the salary is the main reason anyone picks this job, if that gets taken away, you’d have the qualified people that work this job quit. Contract towers? They are mostly veteran controllers who have been forced by the FAA to retire at 56, and aren’t under the constant scrutiny that we are at FAA, which is why you get better service there. All the contract positions currently are paid better than I am as well, the only perk for me this year is the retirement plan… which is worse that most state government plans.

    I think it will get better, but not quickly. The FAA IS getting more picky about who gets through the program, but they are learning their lesson at the cost of pilots. The comments about heaps of metal are complete garbage. If a controller gets a ‘deal’ there is still retraining that occurs, we just have a good safety reporting program that protects the our job if it was truly an error, which makes it more likely that it will be noticed and corrected.

    By the way, expeditious isn’t in the FAA’s ATO mission statement anymore.

    I’ve had two kinds of pilots asking questions before… one says “Tower are you sure…?” the other says “Tower we are going to do this instead…”

    The first is fine, you try the second with me, and you are gonna get an earful, because I am one of the newbies that takes pride in my job, and in doing it well!


  33. irie Says:

    Good answer Steve. Wish we had more like you.

    btw, at my facility (in the top 25 busiest)we are 50% experienced, 50% new hires with less than 4 years in the agency. The first of those new hires checked out 3 months ago.

  34. Roger Ward Says:

    Chicago Exe.
    About a year ago I was cleared to land. Just at the time I was on base. A twin eng was on final on the other end. I asked the tower if I was clear to land on (forgot #) this runway. He responded “Oooooppps!! my error” then he diverted the twin.

    I had a co-pilot with me. He got sick & needed to go to the restroom as soon as we parked.

    FSS isn’t any good her at all.

  35. Ray O Says:

    Not qualified to talk about the internals of ATC but as a daily user let me squawk about this line: “How about someone mentioning that rattling off the ATIS at Warp-speed makes them incomprehensible to many pilots.”

    I am one of those pilots. Flew into unnamed) field last month under the DFW ring. For 5 straight minutes copilot and I listened to ATIS. The last 20 seconds of information were absolutely incomprehensible, even after MANY cycles, even when we knew what to expect. Changed headsets and radios. Finally I said to copilot, “I have no idea what he just said, do you?”

    When I didn’t mention the required ATIS identifier on initial contact, the controller asked if I had it. I told him, I “heard” it many times but I absolutely did not “have” it.

    Any of you reading this who make the ATIS recordings, please note: Most of the ATIS reports are very professional, but regularly I hear some guy who sounds like he’s reading the fine print disclaimer of a radio advertisement by a shady car dealer. Give us a break! If you don’t like your job then quit! But don’t spew monotoned speedtalk out and expect compliance. And when we hear your voice again on the tower frequency (and yes we can tell who you are) we don’t think “Wow, he must be a great controller to be able to talk that fast!” What we think is “Oh, great! That’s the idiot on the ATIS.”

  36. James Says:

    Pilots Need to Speak Up More.. the solution is often to not be so passive. At our local airport, landing late afternoon on 26 for example, puts one directly into the setting sun. If the winds are light, for safety, the controller should change runways; if they don’t then request it. Why burn your eyes when requesting a different runway almost always gets an affirmative response. Pilot feedback is necessary for any controller to improve responsiveness. I’ve had controllers asleep at the switch, a call to the tower after tying down the aircraft leads to some interesting conversations. Controllers are there to serve the needs of arriving and departing aircraft.

  37. Old school retired Says:

    I had to jump in on this. It isn’t a NATCA problem, it’s FAA management. When they spanked the controllers 5 years ago, froze their pay for 3 years, and started making rule changes it started a chain reaction. What used to pass for good controlling was punished. If a controller had an operational error it cost you pay. ‘Go arounds’ were scrutinized by listening to the tapes for a half hour before and after the go around to see if they could catch you doing anything else wrong. If you said, ‘Cleared FOR touch and go’ instead of ‘Cleared touch and go’ you got demerits. Seriously, cleared for touch and go???? Controllers obviously started wondering, why run them close when it might cost you pay? So we didn’t. Then they threatened to punish you if you ran them too far apart. Then they thought, why keep doing this when I can just retire? So they are. Controllers really feel bad for the pilots, but they can’t help it. They have inept management constantly looking over their shoulders trying to punish them for anything they can. It’s why thousands, yes thousands of controllers, have gotten out like I did as soon as eligible for retirement. The FAA is being mismanaged horribly, and pilots are the ones that suffer.

    Controllers used to be proud of the way they could move metal. The new controllers (with a really poor work ethic and attitude) are being taught….NOT how to fill holes….but how to be super safe and conservative. ALL WITH A LOT LESS TRAFFIC. The FAA is so short on people they are keeping kids on that should have been out the door. And they are terrible.

    I could go on all day about all the rule changes the FAA made to the system in the last 5 years restricting controllers, but it would be too long to read. As a pilot and former controller, all I can say is the system is broken and is sliding downhill.

  38. Tom Gray Says:

    Albuquerque Approach, Tower and ARTCC are exceptional. We do most of our flight testing in and around the local area and they have been very accommodating. I feel that our safety has also been greatly enhanced over the years under their watchful eyes. I appreciate their professionalism, proficiency, and willingness to help (even when they are busy) very much.

  39. dmanuel Says:

    It is reassuring to see some positive comments coming for diverse ATC facilities. As a commercial/instrument pilot, most of my flying is done in the Northeast, so I have not had the pleasure(?) of experiencing all the centers and approach controls/towers. I heard a comment in the ready room which, kind of, sums up the differences in quality, efficiency, attitude and technique. I am sure there are other facilities this could apply to, but she said Potomac knows how to run canned procedures, but Pittsburgh Approach is way better at controlling traffic.

  40. Robert Mark Says:

    So it’s not my imagination on this “Line Up and Wait” thing? There are only a select group of towers allowed to put someone in position after a landing goes by? The other shave to wait until the landing has cleared the runway?

    Tell me this ain’t so??

  41. Louis Bowers Says:

    Excellent article, I fully agree.

    Most under utilized phrase in my mind to date has been “line up and wait.”

    You are spot on, too much gas is wasted idling at hold short lines.

    Take care,

  42. Anonymous ATC Says:

    Reference Line up and wait – it’s entirely dependent on the tower. Some facilities (LNK comes to mind) have abolished it entirely. I work at a facility that allows it, but only under the following circumstances : all positions in the tower have to be staffed (no combined ground/clnc, for example) and the controller in charge cannot be working local control. Considering the pathetic state of staffing, it is a wonder we even get to use it at all. And when we do have LUAW, we all haven’t used it in so long that we’re just not that good at hitting the gaps.

    Honestly, ‘Old School retired’ a few replies up hit the nail on the head. Its not the Union causing any of this, it’s what FAA management dictates. If we so much as say one word wrong, (think visual separation!) or try to be friendly on frequency, the phone rings and we get to go do the carpet dance in the ops manager’s office. Why run 3.5 miles on final when you can run 6 and not have to go talk to the boss? I don’t agree with this, but this is the truth.

  43. irie Says:

    That is correct. All towers everywhere used to be able to Line Up and Wait (Position and Hold). Now the manager has to apply for a waiver, with good justification. Most small facilities have lost their ability to use Line Up and Wait. Even the big facilities have rules for when they can use it, most dependant on the postitions open(staffing). We usually stop being able to LUAW around 9 p.m. It was our understanding that APA requested this change.

  44. 29 years ATC Says:

    Rob, its been a series of events over the past 5-6 years which has led to the current state of the ATC system. It started when the Bush Administration threw all NATCA technical liaisons out of Washington HQ. Now all equipment and procedural decisions were being made by people who never had the ability to work traffic but found a way into a desk job.

    Then the Bush Administration played hardball with NATCA over contract negotiations. They never bargained in good faith and knew they held the upper hand and could ultimately impose work rules upon the controllers. They imposed the work rules with B scale pay for new hires and a pay freeze for all other controllers. FAA management continued to get raises during this 3 year period, so when you hear talk about controllers being exempt now from the proposed Obama pay freeze, we gave at the office from 2006 to 2009.

    As Old School Retired said, the FAA began cracking down on the most ridiculous things and punishing controllers. Those eligible to retire said screw this, and left by the thousands, creating a serious brain drain.

    While all this is going on, what used to be a screening process in Oklahoma City, where as Roy Warner said above that 60% didnt make the grade, it has now become a joke. The screening is now done with live traffic and the flying public is the guinea pig.

    On top of all this, there was no incentive for veteran controllers at smaller towers and TRACONS to go to the busier facilities during the imposed work rules. In fact, most promotions to busier places resulted in a cut in pay due to the new pay rules!

    So you have controllers leaving in droves at busy places and the replacements are the never-been-tested new guys off the street earning B scale. What could possibly go wrong?

    Well, now the idiots in Washington, who were never good at ATC for the brief time they spent in a headset, were now making some really bad rules. The detailed taxi instructions rule has increased frequency congestion and work load. The only one runway crossing at a time rule has increased frequency congestion and workload. You have to remember that each crossing and hold short instruction must be read back and with an associated call sign. I have had to make a half a dozen transmissions to accomplish what could have been done with taxi to the ramp.

    Now you have position and hold (I hate line up and wait.) A local controller cannot go into position and hold when the controller in charge (CIC) is combined with another position. I know for sure that PWK rarely has a supervisor in the tower so the CIC is usually combined with local control. No p&h. This is happening all across the country. I can assure you that it is more dangerous to hold an aircraft short and try to hit a gap between arrivals than it is to go into p&h, but someone behind a desk in DC probably got a raise over this mess. Some tower managers forbid their controllers to p&h under any circumstance.
    Sorry for the rant, but something this screwed up did not happen over night. A long chain of events was necessary to cause what you and others here have described.

  45. Joe Says:

    Reference line up and wait, yes, only some facilities can do it. Many of the lower level facilities are not authorized any longer. I work at a small to mid level up/down facility and we haven’t had position and hold for years. Sucks, but true. It stunk when they took land and hold short away from us as well.

  46. SashaMac Says:

    Some places cannot do line up and wait at all due to FAA directive. Some places can do it with a waiver. At my facility we have such a waiver but we need all positions staffed in the cab, for which we don’t always have the personnel. Try explaining that one to #5 after #1 through #4 were put in position, but one controller had to go home so you can’t let him on the runway after the arrival crosses the fence.

  47. SashaMac Says:

    One more note, there is equipment in use today that measures distances between planes down to a hundredth of a mile during live traffic. All the people here talking about how they pushed all this tin back in the day could eyeball things back then and say, “I got 3 miles” and no one would argue. Now the TARP machine says 2.99 and you get a proximity error. There is AMASS at airports that says you had 5900 feet and airborne instead of 6000 on the runway. As an OJTI, I have been told to train newbies to be safe, not to push things. A few of us work to move traffic quickly, but only when we work without a trainee, which is vary rare during periods of traffic.

  48. Ross Says:

    Plenty of blame to go around here. The Ex-Patco guys need to read that book “Who Moved My Cheese”, Wow that was over 20 years ago.

    When I hear it was Bush’s fault or Reagan’s or Eisenhower’s fault, my eyes glaze over. Move on already.

    OTOH, I hate not having P&H, but if we pilots can’t refrain from RW incursions, dumb stuff like this happens from the clueless at the FAA.

    Also heard a guy get chewed out a few weeks ago by Local for landing w/o calling up ATC. Poor schlep did not even know we had a tower for almost 5 years now.

    My biggest complaint with ATC: Don’t keep slam dunking me on the approach. Even when I see it coming, I can’t go down and slow down at the same time, and I can’t intercept the GS from above. Or flying me thru the localizer because your miscalculated the gap.

    Like I said, we all have our shortcomings.

  49. 29 years ATC Says:

    Ross, as far as placing blame goes, you really need to look at the whole picture. Just like in aircraft accidents, it was a chain of events that got us to this point.

    Thousands of veteran controllers don’t retire all at once in a vacuum. There had to be a reason why these people left before their mandatory retirement age. That reason was the work rules imposed by the Bush Administration on Labor Day, of all days, 9/3/06.

    As one of my colleagues has said in another forum, the A scale gets you the Hudson, the B scale gets you Buffalo.

  50. oz Says:

    Line up and wait is determined by the facility. Any facility can have it, however with today’s technology allowing big brother to watch and hear everything from afar, some facilities have opted out. If you use and airport without it and want it, harass the manager until you get the answer you want.
    As a 35 ATC and 34 year ATP, I can attest to the fact that the skill level is horrendous today. The FAA dropped the screen process and anyone that passes the exam can be hired. Everyone that can fog a mirror, are not being hired. In fact, the hiring level is much lower than it should be. The faa promised around 1200 new hires per year to offset normal retirements, deaths, promotions, etc. This year we’re looking at about 700.
    NATCA now has a seat at the table with the FAA, but they are from from “running” any part of the operation. They are a most definitely needed and appreciated. Hopefully, our cooperative days are going to continue for a long long time.

  51. 21 Years and hurry up retirement! Says:

    It doesn’t matter where you fly into! Contract tower or FAA tower. Thanks to the Bush administration, NATCA was removed from just about everything you could think of. Controllers input to “the system” was flushed down the toilet. The people making decisions were fast trackers to the top of management that couldn’t certify or work traffic! So let’s promote them!!!!

    The “new generation” of controller is the “trophy child”.. They expect everything, including my pay and leave that I have worked 21 years to obtain! They BELIEVE that they are owed it NOW! SCREW THEM!

    They need to start working airplanes and worrying about following the rules, doing a safe and competent job! I agree with the above… About 30% is worth it but the others need to go! “We wouldn’t want to hurt their feelings….” Yeah, but when airplanes start falling out of the sky because they didn’t pay attention the FAA PR folks will be wiping their asses for days trying to find some more bullsh*t to pump out to the media!!!

    Training these new people is a JOKE!!! They don’t want to learn a damn thing we have to teach them… they already know it so I say screw the training and let a supervisor or manager sit with them while they work and see if they turn ghostly white like the rest of us!

    Enough is enough! If you as a pilot have a problem, call your congressman and complain!!!!

  52. James Says:

    A question for a controller. Is any time sitting in an aircraft cockpit required? Does a controller as part of training, have to spend time in a light or heavy aircraft participating in traffic pattern work, ground traffic, etc.?

    I benefited from visiting the tower and took others there to observe and learn. I assume the same kind of learning and appreciation would occur being in aircraft listening from the other side of the radio.

  53. 22 Years and still counting! Says:

    While I certainly agree to some extent on most of what folks are commenting on and also the original post, I have to say that being a 22 year ATC vet has given me a unique insight on what I believe is a lot of the problem in the FAA now.

    The level of professionalism has fallen in recent years due to a very profound lack of talent. As someone has already stated we do have a percentage of folks that are capable and safe in their current jobs. The problem is that the FAA has forced us to accept folks that really should not be working position at ANY level facility.

    A lot of folks believe that this is a standard drop off that will correct itself somewhere down the road. I disagree. I think this is an indication of where the skills are headed and we may never see those higher skill sets again.

    We’ll see.

    I would suggest when you get substandard service you make sure you complain to the Facility so they could dig into whatever issue you may have had and see what they could do about it. Without that knowledge the folks at these facilities will never know that they have issues.

  54. Robert Mark Says:

    Whether it was George or Bill or Barack who implemented some goofy policy, we now need to deal the cards we’ve been dealt to some extent.

    I truly believe users need to have a little backbone and call a facility when theres a problem, but all too often, pilots say they dont want to bother. Some of them are scared it will all come back to haunt them.

    And seriously, have you tried to find the phone number or an e-mail for any of the ATC facilities near you to raise a concern or ask a question? It’s not very easy.

    Could it be that FAA would rather we not be able to bother them?

    BTW, if one of you have a link to a list somewhere it would be much appreciated.

  55. 21 Years and hurry up retirement! Says:

    There is no requirement for a controller to ride in a cockpit… Some controllers don’t like to fly! ;-}

    Before 9/11 we were able to ride with the airlines and ride jumpseat so a controller would see the work load that these guys/gals are under when the sh*t is hitting the fan..

    Those of us that got to experience the jumpseats AND that are pilots, are constantly banging our heads into the wall trying to explain what the pilots are doing! It falls on deaf ears a good 70% of the time! Yes, we have egos.. it’s a controlling enviroment but egos need to be operating in a safe enviroment and trying to learn as much they can.. I firmly believe that they don’t care to hear what we have to say and that we must be making this stuff up!

    I love to fly.. or used to!

  56. Gary T. O'Toole Says:

    FAM trips(where controllers could sit up front with the pilots and observe) have been gone since 9/11. We are definitely a security risk. Going on a FAM trip would definitely help the newer controllers. About 1/2 of them think that the only things pilots should do is listen to ATC. Pilots rarely come up to the tower and approach, and mostly they are the lower experienced pilots. Professional pilots may show up one time a year.

  57. 21 Years and hurry up retirement! Says:

    For a list, good luck!

    Here… trying to get a hold of a FAA facility?

    This link will give you a number to the regional offices.. Call them and ask for the facility contact information…

    These offices oversee the field facilities and can provide the information to you.

  58. dell Coller Says:

    This is the artical I’ve wanted to write for years. Good job

  59. MAJOR airport ATC-24 years Says:

    You guys are killing me with this. Ex-FAA and Another Ex-FAA both understand the situation and hit the nail on the head. The “agency” quit managing performance and skill levels in 2002. Since then they have only concerned themselves with two things….time on position productivity and overall conduct of ATC’s. Neither of which is relevant to the actual job.

    I work on a team of 7 people in the busiest airspace on Earth. If I add everyone on my team** including the Supervisor’s** ATC experience together, it is still 5 years shy of mine. Almost everyone eligible to retire got the hell out after the financial and morale beating we got from the last administrator and then we were flooded with zero experience ATC prep college grads who have never had a job before. I feel sorry for these kids and there six figure student loans but there was a definite reason for the 80% washout rate in the 80’s and 90’s. This job is not for everyone, yet these days we have a near 0% washout rate in my facility. What do you expect?

    We work in a barely operating archaic system, operated by extremely inexperienced people who are managed with the attitude of shut up, we are the bosses, you will do what we say. Again, what do you expect?.

    Where was the outcry and commentary when the system and employee morale was being destroyed by Bush/Blakey?

  60. Eric Basile Says:


    As a Chicago-area based turbojet corporate pilot (and frequent user of all the airports you listed,) I generally agree with the concerns you mentioned. However, I wonder if you’ve bothered to discuss these concerns with the facility managers? Many of the contract towers I’ve seen distribute “customer service” surveys at the FBO’s. I know for a fact UGN does. Perhaps making your concerns known, in writing, outside of the “blog” environment may have some effect. Better yet, why not consider hosting an aviation safety seminar and invite a tower representative to attend? Face-to-face communication could help generate some explanations for situations you’ve encountered.

  61. FAA retired Says:

    Line up and wait sucks. My little VFR tower in Cali doesn’t allow it because ther are not enough personnel. Soooo, we decided that if the FAA doesn’t want us to push it, then we won’t. I used to love “pushing the metal”, but only the air carrier airports have the waivers and people necessary to utilize it. And, the new taxi phraseology has increased the controller workload, causing delays to pilots. I don’t think any of this increases safety ( I have 30 years’ experience as a radar/tower controller), so complain to the FAA. This is NOT the controllers’ fault.

  62. Old Fossil Says:

    Great blog and good insights all the way around! I’m soon to retire after 37 years of ATC (10 USAF, 27 FAA). I’ve had the privelege of working with some great controllers and the frustrations of working with some piss poor ones through out that time period. I happily admit to being somewhat of a “dinosaur” and set in my ways! In 37 years I HOPE I’ve earned that! The biggest frustration for me is how standards of performance have continued to be lowered to the lowest possible denominator. Especially in the last 12-15 years. I agree the screening process is, indeed, little to no screen at all. The college programs out there tout a degree in ATC! That’s great but it does NOT mean those kids are really suited for the job either! The basic reality is that not all people (even very intelligent ones) have a knack for 3 dimensional problem solving. It’s been my experience that when those individuals are taught to a low standard they tend to stick with their comfort zone and only learn as little as they THINK they need. When the situation calls for quick decision making (emergencies, etc.) or knowledge of specific basic procedures, they are lost. Then guess what? They start training other new controllers to under achieve and/or move on to busier facilities that have also dummied downed their standards. I love my job! It’s just a bit disheartening to see the lack of respect for the profession within the work force and the half-assed attitude toward the damage a controller can create. I love gadgets and still embrace learning the ever changing rules/procedures when they make sense to me. Unfortunately, technology and silly rules aren’t going to reverse the trend of lowered standards and expectations of the individual. You can come up with a huge list of contributing factors in the whole thing (FAA, Management, NATCA, Society, etc). Just remember they ALL contributed to the situation.

  63. JO Says:

    As a controller myself (for ten years now) it drives me absolutely insane to see many people being certified who really should have been sent packing a year ago. The ‘new faa’ is a scary FAA at best. In my facility alone…I limit the days that I will fly…and thats just my facility. I am most positive that all the other facilities are producing knuckle-heads just as we are. But with all of the ‘new improvements’…and the new ‘kinder, gentler faa’…it’s bringing down the system. And I will even leave ERAM out of this…with ERAM completely out of the picture, the system is failing at best.

    cheers to all you controllers and pilots out there gettin it done.

  64. Johnk Says:

    There are some situations you may not have the full picture on. When I was in a vfr twr way back when I actually had 2 helos ask for training using the full rwy. And traffic was slow and I ran my 2 touch and gos on the other rwy. I don’t know that is the case just speculation. Also faa has changed a lot of rules that slow traffic down.TIPH and full taxi instructions with hold short of all rwys as examples.
    But you may still have a point.

  65. Martinlady Says:

    There are a number of reasons for the decline in performance and service. The lack of a real screening process for new hires combined with “Train to Succeed” is a big one. The Imposed Work Rules and the subsequent mass exodus of experienced controllers is another. We’ve now got people with less than a year or two CPC responsible for training even newer hires.

    When I started out close to 20 years ago, I was taught how to maximize every available inch of pavement and heard things like “We don’t run delays for training.” However, the Agency (not any union) has been implementing rules have become far more restrictive and cumbersome to the point that they’ve created a morass. We don’t use LUAW at my facility anymore; it went the way of LAHSO…too many restrictions.

    One reason I haven’t seen mentioned yet is NextGen. Start here and read in order for another perspective on the problem:

  66. 767bill Says:

    For those of us who are considered the old dogs in the ATC system, we know what the newbies are seeing now. It is the FAA’s ability to close the barn after the horse is out. They have always be reactionary and that is then coupled with overkill. By lowering controller training stnadards they have to implement more rules, CYA.

    Remember that the difference between the FFA and the FAA….. the FFA has adult leadership.

  67. ControllerCFI Says:

    A bit of a devil’s advocate here, as both an Enroute controller at one of the larger ARTCC’s and a CFII/MEI, I have noticed a downward trend in pilots as well. It’s happening more often that clearances need to be given twice, if not three times because the guys in the cockpit aren’t paying attention. The youngsters are losing situational awareness with their glass cockpits and 15miles southwest of XYZ is readback “15miles this side of XYZ” and it’s really the otherside. Guys answering clearances without a callsign routinely, not saying altitude or assigned altitude (if climbing/descending) on check-on, etc.

    I’m not disagreeing that there are some weaksticks in the game behind the scope, but there are a LOT Of guys flying for regionals, majors, corporate operations, fractionals, etc. that are in way over their head. “Twenty-four thousand” is not an altitude in CONUS, nor is “Flight Level One-Two-Zero”.

    My point here is, we can point fingers at the controllers all day, and it certainly is frustrating when I put my pilot hat on, but on the other side of the fence, from my controller perspective, the lack of professionalism and lack of quality coming from the cockpit is just as bad.

    Let’s not forget the Colgan Dash 8 crash in KBUF, for example.

    Happy Holidays, folks.

  68. Rippinit Says:

    Being an active controller at a center I gotta comment. We have numerous trainees washing out (should have been screened out by now but no more screen) that are being offered tower jobs and have not been able to certify on 2 radar associate positions. These are first level basic coordination positions where you don’t even talk to airplanes. A few years back these trainees were back on the street. I see trainees checked out with such poor skills they are separating aircraft by 20’miles rather than anywhere near the 5 required and that’s no exaggeration. Trainee can’t do the job in your area? Move them to another area and give more training hours. It is getting ridiculous.

  69. David Abbey Says:

    Rob and all,

    This has, and continues to be, a great discussion. I enjoy getting the different points of view from both controllers and pilots, and those who are both.

    I didn’t realize that most facilities don’t allow LUAW. Does the arriving traffic have to clear the runway before the next departure can take the runway?. I only listen to ATC at the majors (ORD/EWR/JFK). Could you imagine the delays if they weren’t allowed to do LUAW? Just like every “argument”, there are 3 sides. Pilots, Controllers, and the “truth” which is usually somewhere in the middle.

    Somebody posted the comment that at the college programs, a student may do great at the curriculum but still not know how to control traffic. I would partially be an example of this. In 1996, I went to the MN Air Traffic Control Training Center in Eden Prairie, MN (once referred to the MARC or a CTI school). I aced the classes and thought that I was about to embark on a great career. I was assigned to Boston ARTCC in NH and left after just a couple of months at most. It turned out not to be the job that I could handle and to this day I don’t regret leaving. I think ATC is a great career for those who can do it. My hat is off to all the controllers who have left comments on this very interesting subject and hope we continue to have the great safety record with the cooperation of the pilots and controllers.

    I don’t know what my main point of this was, except mainly to say what a great dialogue is being had.

    Have a great holiday.

    David Abbey
    Queens Village, NY

  70. D.Ralph Says:

    History: LAX Center, LGB, SNA, FUL, Towers, LGB, Coast, SAN, TRACONS.

    Retired 1994, have sons in ATC. I can attest to the fact that the bar has been lowered. The academy in OKC does not add any value to new hires. The MUST PASS component of training, that is those with no possible way to become efficient at controlling, are protected by the Union and political correctness; (diversity)!

    The improper application of “TRAIN TO SUCCEED” has made the bar so low that it wins all limbo contests ever held!

  71. 21 Years and hurry up retirement! Says:


    With regards to talking to facility mgmt, we as FAA employees have been doing employee surveys, giving feedback for years… The fact is that mgmt doesn’t want to hear how screwed up they are. They can’t be honest with anyone and it’s nothing but smoke and mirrors. Pilot have complained to our mgmt about stuff and nothing changes..

    We have no performance management any more… It’s a joke!

    I too work with people where their total time doesn’t equal all my time in and when I bring up an issue of safety, I’m accused of whining. And my supervisor just shakes his head and says “this place sucks!” That’s the extent of performance mgmt!

  72. 767bill Says:

    D, Ralph, thank you for being so honest. I do have a simple question, how the heck is a pilot supposed to know which airport will do Line Up and Wait? I have looked ove rthe Jepps and noting tells me anything about how each airport has thier own rules to go by. Does this mean that we will eventually have a 7110.65 for each facility?

  73. Robert Mark Says:

    Since Eric says he’s a local Chicago guy, I must say that before I wrote the piece the other day, I did not call the tower at KPWK. I did try at Kenosha, but got only a voicemail. Left a message but no one called back.

    I also did call and e-mail the quality control guy at Midwest ATC, the company that runs the contract towers, but I did not receive a call back from them either.

    I do agree we need to keep trying.

    So let me ask you all.

    Why is it that so many ATC users are reluctant to pick up the phone and call when the service stinks?

  74. Jim Says:


    There isn’t really a way to know for the general users of the system to know which towers with do LUAW. Some facilities are authorized to use it, but may or may not have the staffing to use it. I worked at GRB for a while; sometimes we could use it, then someone would go home for the day and we suddenly couldn’t use it anymore.

    Some controllers have the opportunity to use it so rarely that they don’t feel safe using it when the opportunity arises–there’s no incentive to squeeze a departure out ahead of an arrival in most cases; why put your job in jeopardy when you can make the departure wait 2 more minutes and not have to worry about it?

    Before the PATCO strike, as I understand it, the FAA wasn’t counting 100ths of a mile on final and tens of feet on the runway. Now, anything unusual at all means a supervisor is going to be listening to the tapes, ready to call a deal because the pilot didn’t state his callsign with his readback and the controller didn’t catch it.

  75. MooneyMark Says:

    This discussion is amazingly positive and to the point. As a retired Tower/TRACON controller and first line supervisor and a current Part 135 single and twin pilot, I’ve seen some of the difficulties the system is having in adapting to new controllers, new priorities and increasing surveillance by automation and the FAA and other agencies.

    It used to be “No Harm, No Foul” and new controllers learned how to use minimum separation to organize and expedite. (By the way it is still in the book. 7110.65 para. 2-1-1. “The primary purpose of the ATC system is to prevent a collision between aircraft operating in the system and to ORGANIZE and EXPEDITE the flow of traffic, and to provide support for National Security and Homeland Defense.”)

    Out here in the northwest, I’ve found Seattle Center, Seattle Approach and Whidbey Approach to be first rate. The less busy control facilities seem to be adding a little separation and struggling to prioritize traffic, but I sense that they are working at improving. Those of us flying in the system can help by cooperating, responding professionally, and making specific service requests when appropriate.

    I’ve wondered why controllers on the floor want to provide service, but feel thwarted by “management,” Seems to me that the talented controllers enjoy the challenge and rewards of the control positions and shun “advancement” to the staff positions where they might have more influence over policies and procedures. On the other hand those that find their time on busy control positions stressful and anxious may welcome the opportunity to escape the “hot seat” to a safer desk job. No surprise that once in a position of influence they opt for promoting procedures and policies that reflect risk avoidance and overly conservative traffic management.

    The ATC pay system has evolved so that those actively involved with traffic control at busy facilities are paid at higher rates than many staff and middle management personnel. This leads to a fair amount of animosity. Most controllers work their shifts and leave work issues at the threshold of the facility. The staff and management folks carry their workload home and on vacation.

    These issues in one form or another have been with the FAA for many years. In my time in the control room I thoroughly enjoyed the demands, the pace and the comaraderie of fellow controllers, but grew to dread the shifting priorities of management and union alike.

    As a pilot I am grateful that despite its flaws the system is still operating. It allows me to fly myself and passengers safely and usually quite efficiently in varying weather and traffic situations. Maybe ATC could have shaved a few minutes here or there. Maybe not. The presence of the friendly voices I routinely encounter somehow means more.

  76. greyfox Says:

    As a retired Air Force, FAA, Contract & DOD controller I agree that the system is in trouble.

    I was hired in 1995 at a contract tower after PATCO and was surprised at the general lack of interest in aviation by the FAA controllers that we, the contract controllers, relieved.

    After a week of training I was surprised by a female employee that I had not met to date. When she took over the local control position (tower operator) I noticed a marked rise in the general tension in the cab. After a few minutes the traffic jumped to where there where four aircraft in the pattern and the controller was obviously struggling. Another female controller, almost automatically, stepped in and relieved the first after only twenty minutes on position.

    One of the FAA controllers later admitted, in private, that they all considered this controller as incompetent. She transferred to a busy Florida tower where she washed-out in a short time.

    The comment of a lack of interest in aviation was made after observations in a number of ATC facilities including the Army facility where I was a Tower Supervisor.

    PATCO is much maligned but the controllers I worked with at five different facilities made mistakes but were dedicated to aviation, flying and air traffic control. From my point of view, Texas, the strike was about a lot more than money, it was about safety and human dignity.

  77. Ex-FAA Says:

    I have read all of the comments before and after my early responses. It seems like most of us are pretty much on the same page. I didn’t mention in my earlier posts that, following my FAA retirement, I was terminal radar instructor at the FAA Academy for two and a half years. I really got to see the quality of the students go down, down, down. Were there talented students? Absolutely! Unfortunately, the training program itself continued to get dummied down to accommodate the students who had no skills and less aptitude for the job. Why was the training program gutted? Again, it’s all about numbers with the FAA in combination with the underlying idea that ANYONE can be a controller.

    How can it be fixed? I have no idea. Unfortunately, the idiots who put numbers, race, and gender above all other things are still running the show. The flying public will never join in the fight. All they want to hear is that everything is just fine. Nobody wants to put grandma on an airplane believing that the crews are less than experienced or the controllers are scarey. Sadly, that is too often the case. If I had any faith left in Congress, I’d say complain, complain, complain. I wish I had the answer, but I do not.

  78. Tom Says:

    This post is right on. As a 14,000 hour corporate pilot and ex FSS specialist, flying out of DPA for a long time, I remember it as a grass strip, wow that was a long time ago. I have watched the quality of controllers go down but the speech rate on the ATIS go to light speed. Being ex FSS I have watched the quality of weather observations posted on the ATIS go down and at times not changed for several hours. I think we have lowered ourselves to mediocrity.

    It is not just controllers I hear airline pilots day in and day out on the radio that are very unprofessional, what has happened? It seems we have lost PRIDE in our work! How do we get PRIDE in our work back?

  79. Robert Mark Says:

    Certainly there has been a cultural change in our society as a whole in which we try to dummy down plenty of work for people who might otherwise be unqualified. Something about making sure some don’t “feel bad,” about themselves I believe.

    One major reason the training standards have slumped is the selection process. Not as many well-qualified people as before. My guess one reason for that is that the pay rates were sent into the toilet during all that administration/NATCA strife when George Bush was still president. That left FAA with the “B” scale pay rates for new hires, a seriously lower wage scale than current controllers were hired in at so many fewer well-qualified folks wanted the jobs.

    (For those who might not remember, American Airlines tried this two-tiered pay scale when Robert Crandall was CEO. It eventually fell flat on its face)

    That pay change – and the newly implemented FAA dress code for controllers – were the last straws for thousands of experienced controllers who left in droves.

    Now, how many truly old, experienced folks are around to train the new people? Probably a whole lot fewer than we needed.

    The way to fill the bucket with well-qualified candidates again is to put the pay rates back up to where they need to be for someone who needs these kinds of skills.

    Pay them decently to begin with, and dangle the carrot of a truly decent wage down the road if they succeed after a really rigorous training program and I’ll bet the quality will rise.

    But of course, if FAA believes it all works just fine the way it is, they’ll leave things as they are.

    I liked Eric’s idea about 10 or 20 comments back. Talk to the facility managers when the service is good, but don’t be afraid to tell them when it’s bad either.

    All the managers meet with the regional office people who report to Washington and Oklahoma City. Believe me, if enough people begin nagging tower managers about the quality of service, things will get better.

  80. Brian Hall Says:

    What a great forum we’ve got going here. I’ve really enjoyed all the comments from both sides of the users and controllers. It reminds me of when FAM trips were available, and we could meet and learn from each other while in the air.

    In my 29 year career, I did nothing but train people. If it wasn’t newly hired folks, it was journeyman controllers changing facilities. Everyone got tired of constantly training. It never stopped. Yes, we got paid extra, but it were wasn’t worth the extra pay to have to let these controllers learn on your ticket. And how many times did we spend all this time and effort training just to watch that individual turn around, transfer, and we’d have to start the whole process over again. We didn’t mandate that we would have to get at least a certain number of years of usefulness out of these newly certified individuals, before they were allowed to move again.

    I do also agree that many of the newer folks are at this job for a paycheck only, not because they have any love of aircraft or the aviation industry. I find this sad and troubling. Some only show up, do as little as possible, complain, and make no effort to improve or better the system. Don’t get me wrong. Their are some who go out of their way to go above and beyond to help the users, and work to improve the system. But, because of recent ways of evaluating work performance, we couldn’t recognize and reward those who did. We all just “meet standards” and press on.

    Another bad side of the job is the shift work, rotating shifts, and quick turnarounds. This environment does little to help controllers stay sharp and focused. As much as the controllers would complain, they should be forced to have some extra time between shifts to help them be more rested.

    And lastly, (at least for now) last I knew pilots could still visit en route centers. It just takes some coordination and pre-planing. You need to make arrangements a few days ahead. Contact the nearest facility and ask. I’ll bet they accommodate your requests, if your party isn’t too large.

    Just my additional 2 cents for now. Regards to all.

  81. Ex-FAA Says:

    Brian, excellent post. I respect your opinions because they are based on real-life experience. I would like to add my $.02 to yours and would enjoy comment and feedback.

    The issue of pay is multi-faceted. I really can’t address whether the B-scale pay affected the quality of applicants for the job. Most of the kids I worked with at the FAA Academy just wanted a job. They were willing to bite the bullet and hope things got better. They might not have liked being B-scale, but I didn’t get the impression that many opted out of the profession because of it. Then again, I really don’t know how many turned down the job because of the pay either. I think the bigger issue was that Marion Blakey (Bush’s appointee) promoted the attitude that absolutely anybody could be a controller. It was (and is) vocalized that most controllers lack a college education and therefore are overpaid. My experience is that formal education has absolutely nothing to do with the aptitude necessary to do the job well. Put another way, I have known some unbelievably good and smooth controllers who couldn’t balance a checkbook on their good days. The ability to see things three dimensionally, project ahead, and be able to control the outcome were the skills that were necessary. However, talent and skill needed to be combined with an energy and drive to maximize the efficiency of the operation and make it work. Not too much of that happening these days.

    I doubt seriously if the pay scale and work rules that were imposed had anything to do with saving money or professionalism. My opinion is that it had more to do with control. I believe that the Blakey/Bush regime set about creating a negative environment so that eligible controllers would retire. Then, if you dummy down the system and hire dummies to run it, then you have complete control. The result is that there is little to no screening of applicants, HR (who doesn’t know the pointy end of the airplane goes first) controls the entire hiring process, and the bar for certification is not only lowered, but thrown away. Excellence is discouraged because with it comes pride and independence. Mediocrity is encouraged so that the new controllers biggest concern, if not the only one, is to stay out of trouble and under the radar.

    The bigger issue is still “how do you change it”? NATCA, having been tromped on for years, is more concerned about representing the membership (even the weak sticks) than bringing meaningful change that might include discipline or removal of the weak sticks. Managers have often been promoted to their current position because of their ability to “go along to get along” rather than on a quality background of ATC skill. Upper management falls into the same category only compounded ten fold. Race, gender, and a host of demographics become controlling issues when it comes to hiring, firing, and retention. Skill and performance are secondary issues. Just like there are still good controllers out there, there are also some quality managers. My opinion is that the ratio of good vs. bad is quickly tipping the wrong way. Sadly, with the current cast of characters, I don’t see things changing for the better.

  82. Orval Fairbairn Says:

    The worst tower controllers I have ever encountered in 50+ years of flying are at KVRB (Vero Beach). According to the locals they have three main controllers: “Mr. Grumpy,” “Captain Go-Around,” and “Mr. Good Guy.”

    I had the misfortune of flying into there when “Captain Go-Around” was in the cab.

    I was #3 in a flight of five when Lead called up with flight info. We were on 2 mile Initial when Lead asked whether they wanted a left or right break. Capt. Go-Around then said he wanted us to land in-trail, rather than do a simple overhead and break to the pattern. We had insufficient separation to do this, so everything went to hell fast. In a normal formation break to land, more than one plane can be on the runway; in his way, only one was allowed at a time.

    The fool then sent some of us around an mad a mess of thing.

    BTW: KVRB is an FAA tower.

  83. Melody Warman Says:

    I just read your article in Jetwhine and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Your question as to why aren’t more pilot questioning some of the actions/instructions being issued be some of the ATC controllers?

    I’ve been a pilot for 5 years now. While a few things have seemed screwy to me, I don’t feel I have enough experience to question their actions.

    You, on the other hand, have been a pilot for a number of years AND have been a controller. You’re familiar with the working environment inside the tower. You’re the perfect voice to express issues and concerns regarding the ‘training’ that some of the current controllers are going through.


  84. twoniner Says:

    Where I work it might as well be McDonald’s with RADAR. If someone told me 10 years ago I’d hate my job I wouldn’t have believed them. I used to love ATC now I get pissed even thinking about it. I work with a guy that I’m embarrassed to take the position from him over 50% of the time, but I better be nice to him because he might be my next supervisor.

    I’m glad to see it’s other places and not just the armpit where I work.

  85. Don Says:

    Well written. The only thing that I didn’t see mentioned was that Centers were not much better. I learned to fly in 1969 and was a controller from ’76 to ’08. On an airliner one day on a fam trip, the pilot was harping so much about dumb controllers, I politely offered to get off. I said, “Listen, I am an experience general aviation pilot. You can talk about getting screwed by ATC but I flew C150s, Cherokee 140s, and you cannot hold a candle to my stories of getting screwed.” He shut up about it.

    Screening and basics are important sometimes. But in the same sentence with “safe” they also included “expeditious,” or at least they used to………Well written article, sir.

    Sincerely yours,

  86. dmanuel Says:

    Since there seems to be a significant number of skilled controllers providing input to this Air Traffic Control post, I am hoping they can answer a question. The major news services are touting how NextGen is the answer to removing delays in the air traffic system, by allowing fights to go direct from departure to destination, while reducing separation between aircraft. My question is how realistic is that (I cannot imagine not having arrival posts to the busy airports with some form of 20 or 30 in trail or having departures blast directly through arrivals) and is the current batch of controllers capable of handling the shotgun style of flight?

  87. greyfox Says:

    Hey dmanuel…. I doubt it but the main savings comes reduced in-trail separation, there will still be departure procedures vs arrival procedures.

    The big problem is concrete, there is not enough to handle much more traffic so it does not matter how fast you get there if you have to hold for long periods.

    The future of ATC will be interesting to watch, I am happy I retired.


  88. Centurion Says:

    NextGen will be like taking a busy off-ramp on a freeway that is one lane and gets clogged with traffic regularly and adding another lane to the freeway for more people to get there faster with the same single lane exit that can’t handle the existing traffic…

  89. Another EX-FAA Says:

    Re: Next Gen. I’ve been a CFII since ’65 and as I previously mentioned worked ARTCC(s) and several levels of TRACONS/ATCTS from ’69 to ’94 so I want to insert my $0.02 worth.
    Next Gen can’t work any miracles on expiditing traffic because SOMEBODY HAS TO BREAK THE TIES !
    It will not do any good for everyone to get “direct destination (or feeder fix)” because as we learned years ago, two airplanes cannot occupy the same airspace at the same time without serious results. From what I’ve read here, the faa (lower-case intended) is dumbing-down so much that instead of running 3 closing down to 2.5 to get ’em ON the RWY, it getting worse. In the two-RWY days at IAH, it often got below 2.5 just so we would not be working the 4 p.m. traffic at 8 p.m. (Washington kept telling us that “THEY” knew better than us about how busy we were)
    I LOVED the job, but it got so bad by ’94 that I too was counting the days.
    When I fly now, I make it a point to go around CCA and CBA just to keep from getting ill listening to poor control techniques.

  90. Ex-FAA Says:

    In addition to a fairly long FAA career as a controller that was interrupted by the PATCO strike, I worked as a controller in Toronto approach control in Canada. I had a chance to participate briefly with a program that was developed by outside contractors to increase the efficiency of the ATC system. The developers brought us a computer program for testing that actually told the controller what to do and when. Everyone knows that computers can figure all of this out better than humans, right? Several controllers had an opportunity to vector the same airplanes in a simulator under the same conditions as the computer generated scenario. Well, the human controllers beat the computer every time. The human controllers had the airplanes on the localizer at minimum spacing and were drinking coffee while the computer controller was still working away. It was a slam dunk and the computer contractors walked away dejected.

    My understanding is that NEXTGEN will use satellite based equipment to track airplanes rather than radar and therefore won’t be limited by obstructions, line of sight and curvature of the earth issues. In that regard, areas of no or poor radar coverage will be greatly enhanced. Now, if the right people are working as controllers, I can see that the overall system would be enhanced. The problem still is that the weak link is going to be the doorknobs that are currently being hired and certified…..and shouldn’t be. NOTE: The term “doorknob” was often used at the FAA Academy to describe students who had no business being there or retained. They came in as sharp as a doorknob and despite our best efforts to polish them….they left as doorknobs :-)

    Considering all of the input that this thread has generated, here is an interesting idea (I think). Since the FAA is so paranoid that the working controllers input is so dominated by the union/NATCA selfish issues, why not seek input from those of us who have retired?? We don’t have a dog in the hunt other than to protect the honor and integrity of a job we once loved. Unfortunately, the FAA is run by people who moved up, up, up when they couldn’t do the job to begin with. Not likely that they will open themselves to comment or criticism. So sad.

  91. greyfox Says:

    I have read that there is the expectation that NEXYGEN will allow enroute separation to be reduced to three miles instead of five.

    It is already some help with oceanic control, the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska.

    Still the issue of concrete available.


  92. Ex-FAA Says:

    That very well may be true, but if you don’t have the personnel who are capable of or motivated to run minimum spacing, then the equipment won’t do much good. In the end it will all come down to hiring people who have the aptitude to do the job, the motivation to do the job, and the proper training to do the job. Those who don’t meet a high standard should be terminated. The FAA has demonstrated that it is willing to certify almost anyone in order to meet their “numbers”. This is especially true when race and gender are involved.

  93. Over 30 ATC Says:

    After reading all the posts to date I decided to comment. I’ve been a controller for over 30 years and before that a CFII with over 6000 hours, mostly as a flight instructor. I agree with most of the posts about the stupidity of some of the new rules we have to put up with written by “safety experts” that have never controlled traffic. The rules haven’t improved safety, just slowed down traffic and in some cases made it unsafe. There is not anything we can do about it, except comply with the new rules no matter how stupid.
    There have been many comments about the quality of controllers but little about the quality of pilots and CFIs. I saw one comment about an aircraft had to wait for take-off because another aircraft was on a three mile final. I have been burnt so many times because after I clear and aircraft for take-off it takes them two minutes before they roll. Many times I have had an aircraft on a midfield downwind and clear an aircraft for take-off and I have to give the aircraft that was on downwind a go-around. When I was a flying and was given a takeoff clearance, I taxied on to the runways fast as possible, lined it up, and put the power to it. Now some pilots don’t even start of move for 30 seconds, taxi extremely slow on to the runway, stop on the runway for another 30 seconds, and then finally start to roll. Now where is the Cherokee that was on the four mile final? He’s going around. This happens even if I tell the departure there is traffic on a four mile final. The usual response is looking for the traffic. I dont want him to look to the traffic, I want him to put the power to it and take off.
    Other things that happens all the time is:
    1. A pilot will read back a clearance perfectly and then not do it.
    2. I give detailed taxi instructions as required, and the pilot taxis a different way.
    3. I have to clear an aircraft on downwind to land three or more times because the pilot is not listening or has turned down the radio.

    These are just a few of the problems we face every day and usually every hour. So if you are burning gas waiting for an aircraft on a three mile final, complain to your fellow pilots.

  94. BUBBA Says:


    With ASDE-X, NEXT-GEN and substantive discussions of FREE FLIGHT, we’ve created a new breed of controller .. Part of the angst present comes from those of us on the back side (.. I’m old ..) of our aviation careers convinced that this population of youth simply doesn’t get it or lacks the work ethic … in some ways that may be true … BUT, “line up and wait” is here to stay as much as I think it’s mis-leading, new technology .. ERAM, etc.. will assist a radar person in new ways … the O’Hare Modernization Plan is more about Chicago political folks flexing muscle than about moving more aluminum safely and the new blood showing up at tower cabs & TRACONs just are not the super stars I worked with at ORD tower/TRACON in 81-83 as a furloughed air carrier pilot … similarly, the new young jet pilots climbing the Part 121 ladder starting with the regionals will never understand an instrument crosscheck in a “six-pack” display because all those aircraft are parked in the desert …
    Technology will create laziness in any field … but I still see totally dedicated, self-motivated young people, fired up about crewing and vectoring flying machines in this new world … I’m fortunate to have seen what I consider the BEST years of the business …. pilots hand-flying a B707 with two engines inop on one side & super-controllers vectoring 12 air carrier machines to a thunderstorm saturated 32L localizer at ORD with the ARTS acting up … they’ll never be as good as we were once …
    … or will they ???

    …. happy trails … Bubba

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