October 4, 2008

The Numbers Lie!

Yesterday was busy. When I first arrived to work at 2pm, I was able to chill out at Albany D-side for a few minutes. Then, we "went to one" at Albany and I was told to open up Watertown sector. Watertown is normally combined at the Utica sector, especially this time of year, since most of the airplanes that traverse Watertown also get Utica invovled as well. Thus, it's usually easier to just keep them combined and work all the airplanes together. Allow me to explain:

Watertown owns more airspace than Utica...alot more. They are adjacent to 3 different centers in two countries, and it overlies 3 approach controls. The Watertown sector used to only be one sector, before Utica was invented. Utica now only owns the high altitudes along J547, which is a major westbound airway. Watertown doesn't work as much traffic, quantity-wise, as Utica, but Watertown's airspace is much higher maintainance. Most of the planes in Utica sector are in level flight, crusing along in the same direction, rarely in conflict. There is, however, in-trail spacing to midwest airports that must be accomplished, although the vectors for spacing required often occur near or inside of Watertown's airspace, defeating the purpose of opening up Watertown. Watertown works a lot of slow prop planes and descending jets flying in all directions, military jets, arrivals and departures from small airports in upstate NY, and they coordinate with Montreal and Toronto Centres - See MEOWWW.

Since Utica is relatively new to the world, we're still in the process of working out all the "kinks". Upon conception, or shortly after, the Utica sector owned FL280 and above, as does its bordering friend, Rockdale sector. This made it relatively easy to visualize the airspace in our heads. Cleveland Center has thier sectors split at FL330 and above to the west of us, and the other Boston Center area to our east is split at FL240 and above. While this seems confusing, it makes sense as aircraft tend to descend into the airports on the coast to the east.

A year or two ago, however, management found a computer program that would take a busy period at Watertown/Utica and replay it, moving the airspace borders and altitude splits around, trying to find a happy medium where, when split up, Watertown would work the same QUANTITY of airplanes as Utica. They finally settled on Utica owning FL310 and above. While they were busy trying thier best to keep everyone "productive" (on position working lots of airplanes), they didn't realize that 15 airplanes in Watertown is lot harder to work than having 15 airplanes in Utica. Oh, and the best part is, the only way to actually even out the traffic flow would be to restrict all aircraft landing in Cleveland to FL300 or below, "forcing" them into Watertown sector. Utica would not have to worry about Cleveland spacing. Watertown now has to worry about Cleveland spacing, approaches, and coordination, and a much higher complexity of traffic overall. This is thier plan, and they're sticking to it, regardless of other factors that come up on a day to day basis. Traffic from the past, run through a simulator, is now running our traffic of the future, with no real time re-evaluation.

So, yesterday, Watertown is combined with Utica, and they are BUSY. The supervisors gather and discuss, deciding to split off Watertown. And so, there I sit, at our most fabulous, newly designed Watertown sector. There is Cleveland spacing, of course, and I get to work them all, forced to cruise at FL300, the top altitude in that part of my sector (the southern half which is below Utica). The northern part of the sector is still surface to FL600. Appraently, the reason the sector was going to be busier than normal is becuase all of the overseas arrivals to PHL and IAD are approaching from the north. They are all flying southbound over SYR. The Cleveland arrivals(and a bunch of other traffic) are flying westbound over SYR at the same time. PHL arrivals are coming down out of Canada at FL380 and FL400, along side (or sometimes under and over) IAD traffic. PHL arrivals need to enter the Delancy sector FL260 and below (at SYR, basically), and the IAD traffic has to enter Rockdale or Delancy at FL300 or below (again, at SYR). So, I'm getting busy, with traffic that I have to descend to FL300, crossing with traffic that should be higher, but is restricted to FL300 to "even out" my workload. This issue is brought up to the folks in charge, but to no avail.

Here comes an IAD lander, crossing with an CLE arrival stopped at FL280, below an ORD lander at FL300, since he can't go higher than the ORD in this configuration, as per management restriction. The CLE arrival wants FL300, but can't have it yet. The IAD and ORD planes are tied at SYR, and while I'm debating a solution, a Korean jet bound for Korea comes in from the south, also at FL300. I am taking a PHL jet down below them all to FL260, as I need to anyways, so he's not a factor.

I call Utica, who owns above me, to point out the ORD lander climbing to FL320. "Climbing to FL320 approved, radar contact". He'll work the ORD guy once I'm clear of traffic. I'll still have the Korean and the IAD lander to deal with in a minute. "Lindburg 5336 climb and maintain FL320, crossing traffic". "Unable, too heavy today". WHAT! Its VERY rare for a jet flying under 2000 miles to be capped so low due to any reason. Plan B time.

The CLE is just gonna have to stay at FL280 for a while. I take the PHL guy down to FL240, and then push the IAD lander down below everyone to FL260. The ORD guy then gets FL290, which is not normal for westbound flight, and let the Korean Air run at FL300. Cleveland Center has opposite direct BTV traffic at FL290, so I turn the CLE guy left to get him away from the ORD lander, and then take the ORD flight down to FL280. My D-side takes a few more handoffs and its round two of pushing these overseas jets down below my westbound regional jet traffic. All the while, Utica is just working some airplanes westbound without any fuss.

Every one of these descending IAD and PHL arrivals have to be pointed out to Utica since they don't get below FL300 in time to miss Utica airspace which extends about 20 miles north of SYR. So, Utica has to watch all my airplanes anyways. This situation is much more complex, and often confusing (since we're not used to working this airspace all the time), and we all can't help but agree that we're better off when the two sectors are combined in most cases. The chances of mistakes goes way up with the split sectors.

It would just be nice if we could be flexable enough as a team so that we don't go out of our way to put flows of aircraft in the same place at the same time when its unnecessary. Just becuase the traffic numbers were even from a Tuesday last year, doesn't mean we're all putting in the same effort today or tomorrow, or that its safer this way.



chris said...

One might think that a better metric for workload would be the number of times you have to key your mic, right? Let their computer program sort that out.

Charlie32 said...

Hey, from Germany, just started reading your blog and realized, that it's a "tough" one. It's quite hard to visualize all the traffic you're describing while reading. Tried to find NAV charts to see what you're talking about, especially because I'm not familliar with your area. But nevertheless it's nice to see the view from one of the other "sides" (found a dispatcher blog today) which is trying to keep everything working. Sorry for any typos and I hope that my writing makes sense. You've got yourself a new reader.