Richard Eyer Smith's Excellent Adventures in Paradise

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


The media is all over U.S. air traffic control and, in their enthusiasm, are particularly unburdened by the rules of good journalism. That said, there clearly is a deterioration of confidence in the professionalism and competence in the American ATC system. The flying public is coming to regard ATC as yet another reason to hate – even fear - flying.

The resignation of ATO Chief Hank Krakowski was a necessary first step, although he was not the cause of the problem.

The cause is complacency.

Complacency on the part of management, complacency on the part of training providers and most importantly, complacency on the part of controllers. People in the system have become so focused on the wrong things - the "I'm right - they're wrong" mentality - that the important business of providing safe and efficient service is taking a back seat.

To correct this, I suggest the following:

1) Both controllers and first level supervisors must be required to demonstrate technical competence at least every year or two. Professional pilots must constantly hone their skills and demonstrate their competence via regular flight check rides and simulator exercises; controllers need to do the same. As with pilots, no pass = no ticket.

2) Work shifts need to be evaluated on the basis of operational safety and controller health – not what controllers like because of the “long weekend.” Quick turnarounds and “The Rattler” are not working and never have.

3) The system which allows pilots and controllers to report errors (including their own) without fear of punitive action must remain in force. The media must respect that. Making statements such as “the huge increase in reported errors” does not represent the system’s decline, just its new transparency. It is irresponsible to misrepresent these reports.

4) It is in the nature of media these days to make every story a spectacle. A loss of standard separation incident becomes a “frightening near mid-air collision that could have killed hundreds.” By the same token, constantly mouthing the FAA lines about “safety was never an issue” and “we’re still the world’s safest ATC system,” need to be challenged. We won’t fix what we don’t acknowledge.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have 32 years ATC experience and 5 years as an instructor at the FAA Academy. In my opinion the problem is the dumbing down of Air Traffic Controllers. In the past a 5 part test was administered to potential controllers and only the very highest scores were hired for the program. In the 70's it took a score of 95 or higher to be hired. About 10 years ago, the FAA decided they needed better diversity and started hiring randomly any applicant that scored 70 or higher. You are seeing the results of this policy today and I believe that the job performance of controllers will get worse. The FAA has promoted personell to supervisory positions based more on minority reasons than job performance. The FAA will is just starting to see the results of this dumbing down of ATC.