March 9, 2013

Observations of a Furloughed Controller

My desire to write something and the time it takes to accomplish such a task has not coincided in a while.  So, I'll try to keep this succinct. I've wanted to write about the joys of life when there is severe turbulence from FL250-FL330 (every plane in the northeast is either at FL230 or FL210....Chaos!)  or about our ERAM test run that went remarkably well (sort of) a few weeks ago, or the biggest waste of my time (ADS-B).

But, instead, since my words end up in the bloggosphere, and thus, the political/pop-culture world, I will address the hot topic of the day - Sequestration.   I will not spend this time discussing the actual politics of the situation.  Let just assume that the best way to implement Sequestration is to furlough every air traffic controller for two-four days a month.  Please ignore the fantastical/delusional tree limb I've stepped out onto which I am basing an entire blog post. The furlough letters have been mailed, and, as an agency full of air traffic controllers in charge of the busiest and safest airspace in the world, we have to plan for something!

So, lets talk about what we EXPECT to happen:

A 5% reduction in staff may, or may not, result in an equal reduction in airport/traffic capacity.  On any given day, thousands of controllers, managers and support staff are all working together (occasionally in harmony) to make thousands of flights get to and fro efficiently and safely.  When you disrupt a team structure in untested ways, the results will be unpredictable.

Let's start theoretically.....

Who do you think is the best football team in the NFL?  First, keep that to yourself....  Second, think about the consequences of that team being forced to play with one less player on the field for the entire next season.  Rotate that player throughout the year.  One player removed, out of 11 total, is a 9% reduction. Will that team perform 9% worse than last year?  Definitely?  Maybe?  Remember, the team that just won the Super Bowl was 10-6, beating a team that was 11-4-1.  Winning percentage wise, those two results are 10% apart.  So, do you think your team, playing with ten players all year, will make the Super Bowl?  Your answers could range from "Of course not" to "There's a slim chance" to "Sure, why not" to "My team is the best, they'll scrap their way in!".  The moral - it's almost silly to think about, and it's never happened before, so how could we possibly know.....  Would you be willing to bet $1000 on your team?  Would you bet your life flying through airspace full of uncertainty?

The reality.....

No one knows what will happen when you cut government spending and you furlough air traffic controllers the amount that is proposed.  But we have to plan for the worst.  That is our job.  As an industry, it is in our best interest to be funded in a way that we believe we can achieve maximum safety, capacity and reliability.  If this is disrupted, we will have to change how we operate so as to maintain the results we, and the public, expect and require.  So, as an industry, some red flags were raised to attempt to prevent Sequestration.

But, from an operations viewpoint, a small reduction in workforce will impact capacity (and increase delays) greatly in certain situations.  It is our responsibility to be prepared for this and, since you asked (as a taxpayer), I will try to explain why you might be late.

The primary constraint on the number of planes that can safely land is the number of runways we can use.  Generally speaking, the En-route world (where I work, at Boston Center) does not cause delays.  The delays often occur in our airspace, prior to the bottleneck (the runway).  If there are thunderstorms in my sector in the summer, then the bottle neck is the small gap between storms that I'm trying to descend planes through.  Then, yeah, it's all my fault!  But, I was speaking generally....

Many major airports in this country have demand that exceeds the runway's capacity during certain times of day, and especially when the wind blows from certain directions or if the visibility is low.  These airports have adapted their procedures to enable them to safely add capacity in creative ways such as by using crossing or parallel runways that couldn't normally be usable without the extra controllers to monitor the extra traffic and complicated traffic flows created by the extra traffic.  Very often, these procedures require an extra controller to oversee the extra runway, plus another controller to oversee the operation in general.  These extra set of eyes are getting furloughed every day, so I expect that this extra capacity will be eliminated.   It won't affect every flight.  It won't affect some airports on days when the weather is nice.  But, we are used to a certain level of service from our National Airspace System.  It is our job to make sure that it stays SAFE.  Since we plan on decreasing the number of airplanes to ensure this priority of safety, consider this a fair warning.  Time is money, and we have less money.  I hope you're not in a hurry.

Till next time...


I ran out of time on my break writing.... If I may add:

It is our job to do our best to minimize the effects of Sequestration.  I doubt that my facility will be as impacted as places in NY or Chicago or LA.  If you are delayed more than normal, then there is a controller in this country somewhere who has your safety in mind and he/she asks your patience while we do our best with what we are given.