April 4, 2010

NAS Confucius

I won't claim to be an expert in the ways of Chinese culture, current or historical, but I don't see anything wrong with learning something new and applying its lessons to your own context. I've been enjoying some audio Chinese history lessons during my commute to work, and couldn't help but indulge you in some of my own perspective.

Confucius' ideas have been passed down by his students for centuries, and his ideas on ethics form an ideal that is optimistic and visionary for the human race. He believed that there was a good, moral, responsible way to treat other people, especially directed from those with power towards those without it. Also, there were "right" and "wrong" actions, and those that were considered "right" were to be pursued and carried out for the good of all. In conjunction with common thinking of the time, any bold action that failed was deemed to be "wrong." And that "wrongness" came straight from the heavens. Any successful conquest was hailed as a sign from above that all was "right."

On the flip side, Taoism emerged around the same time period as the contradictory belief system, emphasizing "inaction" instead of an arrogant "we are right in our actions" approach. While most air traffic controllers are all for improvements to the NAS, we tend to (and I think we should) take a Taoist approach. The Taoists assume that since humans can never be completely knowledgeable about a particular topic, we have no business making bold changes to our lives and the world, in that we could never fully ponder the consequences. This is not to say we should take "inaction" instead of turning or climbing a plane for other traffic. Inaction, in this case, should be taken, or not taken, on a systemic scale.

That is essentially what this blog is about. The National Airspace System is so extremely complex, no one can fathom how it all interacts with itself. Even a controller who was very familiar with their own airspace and moving airplanes through it could never carry that same expert perspective about another facilities airspace, or how the automation works at a computer code level, or how to forecast the weather for tomorrow's North Atlantic tracks. Even as an expert in just your or my airspace, slight changes can have profound effects on surrounding traffic that we could never predict until it happens. That is one of the aspects of thunderstorm season that is so mindblowingly complicated.

Luckily, once change happens, humans have the ability to learn about the quirks of their new environment. However, this often comes at the price of incorrect action the first (and maybe second or third) time around. Due to this heightened potential for mistake, changes should be taken very seriously when applied to our ATC system. Safety can be compromised. Even if the FAA claims otherwise.

I know the NAS has to change over the course of my career. It already has in the 4 brief years that I've been at Boston Center. But let us not change for the sake of change. Especially if someone not intimately familiar with our system says we should. For example, the bean counters at Continental Airlines wish they could keep their international arrivals higher over ALB to save fuel. I'd be all for that to help out the economy, etc etc. So, I've thought about it. Alot. As have others in my area. I won't go into too much detail, but suffice to say, any adequate solution to this problem (in the eyes of COA) would most likely require us descending BDL arrivals lower than they are today (and then they would complain about not being able to stay high anymore), which would affect sectors in Cleveland Center that I don't even know the name of (whatever is west of the DSV sector), because they would have to get their BDL traffic under the HPN traffic, something they don't currently have to do. Since we'd be cutting off a way up J6 for ALB departure traffic, we'd have to tell ALB Tower to turn their departures to the east, instead of the west, affecting their split configuration. This would also affect our V487 northbound traffic, our PVD/ISP arrivals, the BDL departures also, and then who knows what in the ATHENS and IGN sectors above me. Again, I can't even fathom what else that would effect, some positively, and some negatively. That is just to let the EWR arrivals stay 6000 feet higher for 20 miles. Imagine the consequences of redesigning an entire approach control, or the whole midwest, or the east coast of the US, or replacing the computer that runs everything.

Well, 2500 years ago, the Taoists would have told you, "that will create problems that no human could possibly ever imagine". Luckily, my employer seems to have everything under control. Don't worry, they're experts.

Till next time....

DM

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

good stuff keep it up

deltamike172 said...

Thanks!

Wicked Penguin said...

Great blog, great post - been a fan for a while. You've always had quite the intellectual approach to the subject matter. It's fascinating to take older philosophies and historical lessons and apply them to modern day scenarios, to see how problem solving has carried down through the ages.

On a related note, a couple years back I wrote a piece on how Sun Tzu's The Art of War can be applied to ATC: http://pinguinomalo.blogspot.com/2008/04/art-of-war.html

Cheers!
- WP

Anonymous said...

I certainly enjoy your commentary as it makes sense of the confusing industry that is flying in the USA.

Dave Starr said...

Interesting and thought provoking. Maybe what we need is a good artist. In my minds eye I can visualize the ATC routing structure like a series of well designed highways with on and off ramps, overpasses, cloverleafs, etc. It appears many can't though, and I'm not talented enough to draw it.

Just imagine for a second that someone 'cured' the road traffic congestion between Philly and New York by paving all of New jersey in concrete and throwing it open to every vehicle from bicycles yo 18 wheelers ... pretty much the half-baked idea of the "Next-Genners"

"Let Freedom Ring" ... Good thought, if you could hear it over the sound of all the crashing metal. And, guess what?

Everyone would still be backed up, jockeying for position to squeeze through the Lincoln Tunnel or across the Walt Whitman.