March 9, 2008

The Mid flick

Now that I am fully checked out, done with training, on my own, left to my own devices, creating my own havoc over upstate NY, I am also working the occasional "mid" shift. I like the overnight mid shift for two reasons: First, I have weird sleeping habits, and they are willing to pay me to be awake in the middle of the night. The second reason is the traffic. There's hardly any. This is not really why I enjoy the mid, however. There is SOME traffic, but it's different. It is really quiet so everyone is direct somewhere they normally can't go direct to during the day. This creates new and still-interesting (to the new guy) conflictions.

It still amazes me, and irritates the pilots, when two planes are going to hit unless I take 4:30 in the morning. So I take action, as I am trained to do. The pilots often question the turn off their direct routing, or a descent from their optimal cruise altitude. After all, they act like they're the only plane in they sky at 3 in the afternoon, imagine their dismay when they realize they're not the only ones flying at 3 in the morning!

So, there I was, working the mid, its 4:30am, and I have 3 airplanes. Cleveland Center is still on their back-up system (the main computer is reset for maintenance at night sometimes), so I only find out about my next airplanes when they call on the line for the hand off with flight plan information. 5am is often a "busy" time, as all the trans-con red-eye flights are approaching BOS and BDL and NY from the west. I am already talking to the first jetBlue Airbus at FL350 heading to Boston. There is another following about 30 miles back at the same altitude. I had just taken the clock off the wall above the headset boxes to skip an hour for daylight savings, so half the planes are running an hour later than normal. Its not nearly as "busy" as it could be. I get an Air Canada full of sleeping vacationers heading north to the crummy weather in Ottawa, also at FL350. The high sector in Montreal Centre also has a United flight from Kuwait to Dulles at FL400 direct Syracuse.

Normally, even at this late hour, New York still needs the IAD arrival descending to FL300, as they also have a large eastbound rush of red-eyes that are traffic for this crossing Triple Seven. I have three, potentially four planes that are crossing just south of Syracuse. Three of them are at FL350, and the fourth needs to somehow get from FL400 to FL300. So I start the Air Canada down to FL330, and the United down to FL340. The winds are strong out of the southwest, so I figure I'm only doing the United jet a favor by getting him out of the strongest headwinds. Apparently not. He firmly lets me know that by starting down now (an hour from his destination) he is wasting 2500 pounds of fuel. Just then, Cleveland calls with the second jetBlue, so I tell the United to just maintain FL380 for now, standby with your sad story, and I pick up the line to take the hand off. Cleveland takes a point out on the United with control for lower if I need it. This covers me all the way down to FL300 if NY can't take this guy at his current altitude. I call NY next and give them the United hand off, including approval for FL380, since most of her red-eyes are running late tonight. I spring the good news to the United and explain to him that we don't enjoy descending him through all of our traffic to meet that restriction, but we don't really have a choice most of the time.

Now that all my traffic is safe, I take the hand off on the third Boston, call Montreal to hand off the Air Canada, and then, as often happens at 5am, I am left with nothing to do. So, I thought about how much gas I just saved United Airlines. 2500 pounds. A gallon of Jet-A weighs about 7 pounds, and its costs about 7 dollars a gallon, so the math is easy. I saved United Airlines about 2500 bucks by making a phone call.

Granted, my first though was that since we're running the FAA like a business now I should be able to claim some of this profit as my own. UAL Corp should be mailing me a check for like 10 percent of their savings since we're technically business partners.

It also made me remember what a retired controller from my area once said. He always thought that the union has been going about this contract/non-tract strife the wrong way. We are not in the business of saving money for anyone, or making money. We are in the business of making sure airplanes and their passengers arrive safely at their destination. We go out of our way to get airplanes up to smooth, fuel efficient altitudes. We go out of our way to give airplanes shortcuts so they can save time and money. The FAA, the flying public, and the airlines take the safety aspect for granted. Airlines try to make flying more efficient and cost effective for themselves. Perhaps if they added up the combined cost benefits of every shortcut we issue every day, someone would realize that we're not the enemy in this game of money and power. We're here to help. The difference is that we don't put money first. We put safety first. Saving money is pretty pointless if you can't get to your destination to spend it.


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