Letters to the Editor

Subject: An ATC Controller's Perspective
From: John Dill jd@en.com

 

I am an air traffic controller at Cleveland (CLE) ARTCC, the world’s busiest ATC facility. During my 27 years at CLE, the FAA has wasted billions of taxpayer's dollars while repeatedly failing to provide a safe and efficient ATC system. This letter attempts to point out the reasons for those failures and suggests possible solutions.

Cleveland Center:

In the heart of the "golden triangle" (Chicago, New York, Washington), CLE Center controls the most densely populated airspace in the world. It has about 390 controllers, 61 supervisors and perhaps 250 other support people. A weekday shift has about 110 controllers. CLE’s traffic count has grown dramatically in the 90’s. We typically handle 8,500 to 9,500 operations a day. Because traffic is random by nature, any given sector can become saturated with little warning. Controllers find themselves overloaded on a daily basis. Most of us have personally worked as many as 28 aircraft at one time.

Chaos on a summer day:

Severe thunderstorms are forecast by mid-afternoon -- a controller’s nightmare. They begin to show on radar and by 5:00 PM they form a solid line from near St Louis to north of Saginaw, cutting off the flow of traffic across the busiest airways in the World. Hundreds of flights are forced to divert north around towering cumulus that reaches to 51,000 ft. Several CLE sectors are in a panic situation, with more traffic than one controller can safely handle. Our antiquated computer systems lose critical data for many of the flights as they are passed between Cleveland and adjoining centers. Handoffs and frequency changes are either not made or are late and any semblance of order is lost. Only by the heroic efforts of the controllers, and perhaps the grace of God, is a disaster avoided.

This happens all too frequently in the summer.

My analysis:

The people who should be re-routing traffic, early enough to avoid a pile-up at the weather boundary, are either unable or unwilling to make such timely decisions. They are the ex-controllers who staff the Traffic Management Unit at CLE (flow control) and the Washington facility (Central Flow). We controllers are then faced with that task and extreme overload is the result. We call it "going down the tubes." It’s always been like this and despite FAA rhetoric, nothing on the horizon looks like a solution. It’s damn scary to see, even worse to control. It’s a very unsafe situation that should be fixed, without delay!

When severe weather appears, alternate routes need to be implemented in a timely manner and far enough away to allow a smooth flow of traffic. The "flow control" people have been funded with vast amounts of money and have the high tech tools needed, but the decisions that could prevent traffic jams are sadly lacking.

Management:

At Cleveland Center, communication is poor between managers and controllers. Our acting chief spends almost no time on the control room floor where he could find out what problems exist. Our boss needs to put a headset on, plug into a sector during a rush and find out what really goes on.

Supervision:

Though more closely involved than managers, many supervisors also need to become integrated in the operation. They are required to work a sector for at least 8 hours a month, but almost none do. Instead, they log on to a vacant position, in order to fulfill the technical requirement, but never actually work traffic. This practice may be illegal (falsifying G’ovt documents?) and prevents them from becoming part of the ATC team. While virtually all are ex-controllers, many lose their respect for the job and current controllers.

In CLE Center, we have a supervisor who is so isolated from the operation that he spends most of the shift sitting at his desk, reading or talking about unrelated subjects. Sometimes he seems unaware of what is happening at the sectors around him. And he makes over $100,000 a year!

Most controllers agree that first-line supervision is the main cause of low morale problems. After the 1981 PATCO strike, all supervisors were put back working as controllers. Morale soared as we all became part of a team "moving the tin." Supervisors should be required to work traffic!

Controllers:

The FAA’s continuing attempt to satisfy "quotas’ has resulted in a very diverse workforce. However, little effort has been made to ensure new employees are fully capable. Many have no aviation background and the "rigorous testing and training" of new hires lacks continuity. This job requires people who are highly skilled and competent; lives are at stake!

Once a controller is certified as a journeyman, he continues to perform his duties forever, with virtually no checks in place to ensure continued competency. Only a few will fall by the wayside due to inability and that usually means they will be promoted to supervisors or bid on a staff position. Hiring should be done based on ability, education and experience. When termination is warranted, it must be allowed.

Technology:

Thursday, 7:15 PM:

I was working "Peck," a busy high-altitude sector over southern Michigan. The westbound ORD rush was on, interspersed with a large amount of eastbound traffic. About 21 aircraft were on my frequency as I was busy spacing Toronto and ORD arrivals. Enter into this fray several southbound flights from Europe to ATL and IAH. The other controller at the sector, (the "D" man) was unable to assist as she was busy stuffing flight strips, passing flight data to Toronto Center (our computers do not interface) and trying to keep the paper flight strips updated. Add to this moderate turbulence and I had my hands full. The frequency was jammed with pilots asking about the ride or requesting altitude changes.

My main concern had to be traffic conflicts, adjusting speeds for ORD and Toronto arrivals, while telling the pilots what I could about the chop. I cleared several flights to different altitudes and vectored others to resolve the conflicts. As three aircraft rapidly approached the Toronto Center boundary, I frantically called Toronto to make manual hand-offs, then had to take four hand-offs from him and start computer tracks. My heart rate was off scale as I yelled to the area supervisor to get me a "Tracker," (another controller to handle some of the coordination with adjacent sectors). He got out of his chair and walked over to the sector, surprised to see the large number of aircraft. The "tracker" arrived in a few minutes and together we worked our way out of a very complex situation and eventually got things under control.

The FAA has been stalled in the technology of the 1970’s. We should have Mode "S" data link, total interface with other facilities, electronic flight data screens and computer generated traffic resolution. Human error is unavoidable without such equipment.

The real solution:

Private industry has learned its lessons well. Companies are concentrating on quality, efficiency and productivity in order to compete successfully in the new "world market." The opposite seems to be true for Government agencies. The dismal performance of the FAA is a matter of public record and I really see no possibility for change as long as the FAA remains a Government bureaucracy.

December, 1997

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