29 June 2011 -- Three or Thrice?
I am here today to address one of the great philosophical quandaries of our age.
On three occasions today, my cat, Pip, brought a live chipmunk onto my enclosed porch. Fortunately, I have a system where she can get onto
the porch but not into the house, which means that I only have to herd the terrified little striped rodent out from under the porch furniture and not
out from under my bed.
Here is the mystery: Was it three different chipmunks, all equally stupid? Or was it the same varmint over and over again? And if it is the latter,
don't you think it would have learned after two tries to not get caught by the cat?
Just for the record, Pip has an amazingly 'soft' mouth for a cat. All three chipmunks (or just the one) got away unharmed.
13 May 2011 -- Chickens Come Home to Roost, Part 4 (the final installment)
I'm going to talk about two things in this post, and then make a feeble attempt to finally herd all my cluckers into the hen house. Please
remember that everything I am writing here is nothing more than my personal opinion, and that none of it applies to all air traffic facilities. There
are lousy facilities, outstanding facilities, facilities run by exceptional management teams, and towers that have liars and cheats for managers ...
just like every other type of workplace. The majority of the 15,000 or so controllers in this country are dedicated, conscientious professionals.
Try to keep in mind that this entire 4-part diatribe about controllers sleeping on the job concerns a tiny minority of the controller work force.
Long, long ago, in a tower far, far away (which is the scifi geek's way of saying "Once upon a time ..."), a journeyman controller working the
midshift (11pm - 7am) turned off four out of the six frequencies he was supposed to be monitoring, stripped down to his whitey tighties, rolled up
in a blanket and proceeded to go to sleep. This was at a facility that had traffic all night long. There were no breaks during the night when a
controller could have any expectation of catching an undisturbed snooze, and the facility did not have a culture that included or even condoned
sleeping while on duty. No one ever figured out where he came up with the idea of attempting this stunt. And please don't ask me why he
thought stripping down to his briefs constituted appropriate attire for the workplace!! Heaven knows I showed up for more than one midnight shift
looking a bit slovenly, but I never showed up in my PJs or elected to strip down during the shift!
Do I need to put into print that he got caught? Of course he got caught! He had turned off two out of three frequency pairs, and was dead to the
world so he never heard the transmissions on the remaining pair. Planes were calling the tower and were not getting an answer! And just so
everyone is clear on this, there is an Air Traffic Regulation that says that controllers SHALL (as in this is mandatory) monitor all frequencies
assigned to their position(s) of operation at all times. There is no excuse possible for shutting down frequencies. None. Zero, zip, nada. The
union argued in his defense, saying that perhaps he did not understand that what he did was not appropriate.
EXCUSE ME?!?!?! No. Sorry. That one doesn't fly. I was the Training Specialist in the facility when this controller first came in. I guarantee we
covered "monitor your frequencies", and I know for certain that the syllabus did not include getting close to naked and going to sleep.
I'm going to jump right to the chase. No disciplinary action was taken against him. I believe a letter of reprimand may have gone into his
personnel file, but those are expunged after three years, and after that there is no official history of the event. I received a letter of reprimand at
one point in my career. It is the ultimate two lashes with a wet noodle type of punishment. There is no suspension, no loss of pay, no delay in
receiving your next step up in the pay grade ... nothing.
Why am I bringing this up? In a word: Accountability. What FAA management demonstrated to everyone in this instance is that you can get
away with the grossest level of unprofessional behavior unscathed. During my years as a controller, this was a fairly widespread problem. We
would watch people lie, cheat, take advantage of loopholes in the rules, break the rules, cover up separation errors, get caught, and nothing
ever happened to them. It happened repeatedly. At some point, your brain starts to ask, "Why bother?" Not about providing service to the
airplanes, but in respect to some of the other rules. Why bother showing up on time every day when there is someone at the facility is who 5-10
minutes late every single day and never gets reprimanded? Why should I work so hard to stay awake -- even though I'm exhausted and just
about dead on my feet -- when three other journeymen have been caught deliberately going to sleep and were not punished?
Them being let off does not make it right. We all know that. On the other hand, if the work force is not being held accountable for their choices
and their behavior ... then who is truly to blame when the professionalism starts to slip? Is it really the controllers? Or is it management?
Since I brought it up, let's move on to Management.
When I joined the FAA, a first line supervisor was usually responsible for approximately 5 subordinates. This is sometimes called 'span of
control'. Five is a very small number. A more customary span of control in both industrial and executive/white-collar businesses is 10-15. A
decade or so ago, someone noticed that the span of control for air traffic supervisors was very low, they added up all the money that was being
spent on the pay for supervisors, and they decided to cut back on the number of supervisors. Some facilities lost more than half of their first line
supervisors. The larger facilities also suffered losses farther up the chain of command.
All of a sudden, supervisors discovered that between completing over-the-shoulders (periodic evaluations of controllers' performance), getting
semi-annual evaluations done, running the watch, overseeing various types of training, and being held responsible for twice as many collateral
duties (such as making up the work schedule, figuring out vacation leave, and doing the time-and-attendance entries that determine everyone's
pay) -- they no longer had time to monitor the operation and provide guidance to the younger, less experienced controllers. At some facilities,
especially the smaller ones, the supervisors, as mentors, effectively disappeared from the operating quarters.
These were the folks with all the experience. For better or for worse, with war stories about falling asleep or tales of what it took to stay awake,
these were the men and women who had the profound depth of experience that desperately needed to be passed down to the younger
generation of controllers. I cannot begin to count the number of times a supervisor standing behind me made a small suggestion that made all
the difference in preventing my traffic from turning into the world's biggest metal hairball. When a controller was babbling, struggling to find the
best way to phrase an instruction to resolve an unusual situation, the supervisors were the ones who could quietly feed them the four-word
solution. It was the supervisors who pulled a habitually late employee to the side and quietly (or not so quietly) told them they had to be on time.
They were the ones who noticed if one individual never came back from break on time, or shirked busy sessions, or avoided certain positions of
operation ... and resolved the situation.
In short, they taught the new people to be professionals.
And suddenly, in a brilliant stroke of cost-cutting, half of the positions were eliminated. The remaining supervisors were so busy picking up the
additional work load that they were effectively gone as well.
So, over the course of four posts in the Mushroom Patch, we have briefly explored the following: six controllers who were caught sleeping on
duty; a media feeding frenzy that deliberately ignored the other 14,994 controllers; upper level management that does not know the FAA's own
history regarding controllers falling asleep; a few facts about circadian rhythms and the futility of attempting to reset the body's natural tendency
to shut down in the wee hours of the morn; a revamped training/screening system that places little or no emphasis on training new employees to
be responsible professionals; a long and glorious history of little or no accountability within the FAA; and last, but certainly not least, a deliberate
and poorly thought-out reduction in the amount of supervision, guidance and oversight.
Are all my chickens on their roosts yet?
You tell me. Who do I blame for the recent rash of controllers getting caught asleep on the job?
Should the controllers have known better? Of course! Especially the ones who went to sleep deliberately. No employee should ever expect to
get away with sleeping on the job. Did FAA management set up an expectation of no repercussions if they were caught? Absolutely. The
transgression has gone unpunished too many times.
When all is said and done, I believe this is management's fault. Management, and cost cutting by Congress, has robbed the Air Traffic Division
of everything it needs to be the best air traffic system in the world. The employees are no longer the best of the best. There is no drive to prove
that they are a member of an elite work force. Supervision is lacking or effectively absent in many facilities. The overall experience level is
painfully low. The FAA's hiring practices have stripped the facilities of decades worth of expertise.
Without accountability, without oversight, without pride, without knowledge, without experience ... what have you got left? The real answer is that
you have 14,000 controllers who go on doing the job well, often unnoticed, frequently unappreciated, and a handful of poorly behaved idiots who
wind up making the majority look bad. Those six or so did not make the rest of the air traffic system look bad on their own though. It took Ray
LaHood and one or two other members of upper management to truly trash the reputation of that overwhelming majority of conscientious,
diligent, alert controllers. The people who should have been defending the controllers most fiercely, cowered and fed their reputations to the
media in order to save themselves. And then they wonder why some controllers do not feel any loyalty to the FAA, the DOT, or their employer,
the federal government.
I'm done. That's my conclusion. The ranting and foaming at the mouth is over.
Before I close out this entry, however, I would like to go off on a tangent. Call it a ricochet.
Some people point out that in 1981, when President Reagan fired almost all of the 15,000 striking controllers, that the air traffic system was quite
literally emptied of all experienced controllers. The system compensated, recovered, and in the process instituted some changes that made it a
better air traffic system. On the rare occasion that I get into a discussion about the current state of the air traffic system, which has been
severely gutted by retirements, I sometimes get asked, "Isn't this the same thing? The system recovered then. Why won't it recover the same
way this time?"
The answer is NOT that the level of air traffic has risen enormously since 1981. Automation has actually compensated for most of that. Not all of
it. Computer systems can't build new runways to increase airport capacities, but they can take care of a lot of the information handling that used
to be done 'manually' (with telephone calls between controllers), increasing the amount of traffic that each controller can handle.
The single biggest difference between then and now is ... supervisors. The supervisors were not part of PATCO (the controller's union in
1981), so they did not go out on strike and they were not fired. Although the workforce was decimated, the expertise stayed behind. They were
there to train the new controllers, to watch over them, to continue to teach long after the new controllers became journeymen, imparting their
wisdom, knowledge and experience to the new generation of controllers. This time around, that knowledge has been foolishly, blindly thrown
away. The new generation is going to have to rediscover it on their own. I have every confidence that they will. It's just such a shame that they
have to do it the hard way.
Stick a fork in me. I'm done.
That is a washout rate at the Academy of 43%. It doesn't stop there. Another huge chunk of potential controllers washed out of the training
programs at their first facilities, or gave up and resigned before attaining Full Performance Level (FPL). The total washout rate of applicants
from Academy to FPL was approximately 70%. That's not a mistake or a typo. Only 30% of all new-hires ever made it to FPL.
This was the system that I survived. When I got to my first facility the training process was known as "up or out". You either progressed and
succeeded, or you were fired. On very rare occasions, a training failure (lovely term for a human being, isn't it?) was given a second chance at a
lower-level facility. That was not the norm, however. We called ourselves Trainees Under Rigid Discipline (TURDs), worked hard, studied
harder, took responsibility for our own progress (because if we didn't, no one was going to do it for us), and either succeeded or did not survive
to tell the tale.
Some people do not believe me when I tell them that pre-ATC I was shy, introverted, lacked any hint of self-esteem, and was so short on
self-confidence that I could have gained some and still been in negative numbers. If you think about the training process I just described, you will
understand that a large number of potential controllers reinvented themselves and grew new personalities in order to survive. In my case, I had
the hard work, diligence, studying, and responsibility stuff all nailed down. That kept me going until I could get the rest of the stuff to gestate.
Then in the late-80's/early-90's, some bright soul looked at the amount of money being paid to keep eventual training failures employed, and
decided that it would be financially prudent to redesign the screening process at the Academy so that fewer people failed. They took a lot of
statistical data, crunched the numbers, and came up with some test questions that they felt would successfully predict who had the aptitude to be
a controllers. The screen was shortened to one week, consisting mostly of studying and taking written-style tests. The remainder of the 3-1/2
months at the Academy was training.
The new system sounds like a better program, doesn't it? It is certainly cost effective, and the people who did well in the 3-month training portion
showed up at the facilities incredibly well prepared. They knew stuff about computer entries and equipment capabilities that some of the
journeymen did not know. It was impressive.
But all you readers out there are no dummies. You know I would not be telling this tale if I didn't think there was something wrong with the new
system. Smart peoples, you are. Yes! (Thank you, Yoda, for that cameo appearance.)
This really does have something to do with controllers falling asleep on the job. Trust me. I'll get there eventually.
Under the old system, no one knew for certain whether they had passed the screen until the last day at the Academy. For the entire 3-1/2
months, our jobs were in jeopardy. So just to start with, we got our first taste of pressure and stress. Measure up or it's goodbye. Next, since we
were provisional employees, the FAA could exercise some downright draconian penalties for certain lapses in behavior. We were NOT late for
class unless there was a full-fledged, "someone-just-died" caliber emergency. (Better yet, don't be late unless you are the person who is dead.
It was the only 100% safe excuse.) Students who were late twice were counseled. Students who were late three times were gone. Everyone
studied on their own time after school was over. We formed study groups and eventually spent the weekends running practice problems
together. We worked hard because if we didn't, we were OUT. Pack your bags, and you are gone. Since we had not passed the screen, there
was nothing between a student and unemployment other than their work ethic.
I suspect you already know where I'm headed with this. Allow me to go on a little longer,because I believe the change in the screen had another
detrimental effect on the air traffic system.
In the original hellish system, students had to run simulated non-radar air traffic problems. We were put into classes of 18, with 17 total
strangers from all backgrounds and all walks of life, taught a bunch of rules, and then we were introduced to graded problems. During graded
problems, two of our classmates played the roles of all the pilots, making simulated radio calls. Once we figured out what the heck we were
supposed to be doing (which was not all that obvious at first), what quickly became very clear was that the pilots in the back of the room could
absolutely sink the controller being graded. For instance, If the pilots did not respond with the correct phraseology and the controller did not
catch the error, it could cost that person anywhere up to 15 points (for a separation error). Two of those is 30 points and a failing grade. And
that is just ONE of many tricks that the pilots could play if they decided they wanted the person in the front row to fail.
Did this sort of thing happen frequently? Absolutely. All the time. There was one class while I was out there that began bickering and fighting so
fiercely that they all deliberately torpedoed each other during their graded problems. All eighteen students failed.
One of the lessons the students learned from the old screen was to put aside their differences in the interest of getting the job done. The
survivors of that apparently flawed, 43%-failure-rate screening process learned some lessons about focusing on the goal and parking the
personality bullshit at the door when they arrived at work. The people who did not learn the lesson did not become controllers.
This is my single biggest beef with what the FAA did to the screening process. They never considered that part of what the system was
screening for was professionalism. I don't expect every controller to get along with every other controller in the business. That's bucking human
nature. What frosts me are the people who put their personal differences ahead of getting the job done correctly ... and I believe to the core of
my soul that there was an increase in that type of person after they changed the screen.
But how does this apply to snoring controllers and chickens?
When they changed the screen at the Academy, the FAA came up with a hiring system that did not place as great an emphasis on instilling an
agency-wide ethic of personal responsibility as the old system. Because of that initial training, old-school controllers figured out for themselves
that they had darned well read, decipher, and memorize the Conduct and Discipline Handbook. If you know your Conduct and Discipline, then
you know that the penalty for one particular offense (I'm not referring to sleeping) included the possibility of being fired on the first occurrence. If
you can be fired the first time you're caught, you think long and hard before deciding to risk it. (The answer is don't. Just don't.) The crop of
controllers that began showing up in 1992 did not seem to worry about cause and effect to the same extent that us old codgers did.
And that's where I believe the chickens begin to come home to roost. This isn't the controllers' faults. The blame rests on the FAA. In the name
of budget and expediency, they eliminated what I believe was an extremely important part of becoming a controller -- learning to be conscientious
professionals. No one is born with that. Many people do not possess that kind of knowledge when they are hired. It has to be taught. The FAA
no longer teaches professionalism, with all the elements and behaviors that are part of it, the way they did in the 80's.
It only got worse as time went on. Toward the end of my career, we had controllers showing up at the facility who weren't even aware that certain
actions were against the rules. Brand new controllers are by definition young. You cannot get hired if you are 30 or older. The FAA prefers
applicants who are between 21 and 25. So the new folks get to blame some of it on being young. Very few have learned that when they were
hired that they entered into a binding, legal CONTRACT with the FAA that says that the FAA and the employee have agreed that in exchange for
doing work, the FAA will provide financial compensation in the form of pay and benefits. If they don't know that, then they don't understand that
they have to work in order to get paid, not the other way around.
We were taught this concept. Under the current program, they are not.
There's your chicken. This is a failure of the FAA's training regimen, not of the controllers. If you have an individual who has not been instilled
with a good work ethic, then look to the instiller when assigning blame, not the instillee. Throw one person out of the Academy for being late to
class three times, and I guarantee that the rest of the class will learn a valuable lesson about being on time and accountability. It is an old school
approach, it is callous, it is abrupt, it screws up a person's life and takes away their livelihood ... and it works.
Now ... add all of this to the actions of the management team at my second facility, which I described in Chickens, Part 2 (posted on April 26,
located on Page 13) and what have you got?
Answer: Controllers asleep on the job, and management going bughouse over it like they're not to blame, that's what.
Coming up in Chickens Come Home To Roost, Part 4 -- An attempt to add a few more pieces, wrap up all the bits into a big messy ball, and then,
if we're all very lucky, I might even be able to turn it into a coherent whole.
1 May 2011 -- Chickens Come Home To Roost, Part 3
Since this entry takes us onto a new page, it is time to restate the disclaimers:
Disclaimer 1: What I am about to write is nothing more than my opinion. I have been retired from air traffic control for three years, I have
not stayed in touch with my coworkers, and I am not an expert on the current work conditions in ATC facilities.
Disclaimer 2: I am eventually going to make some comments that are going to sound extremely critical and disrespectful of the
current crop of air traffic controllers. I am not. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Any individual who makes it through the training
process and reaches the status of Full Performance Level (FPL ... also known as a Journeyman controller) has my undying respect. I am going
to be extremely critical of the FAA’s policies, methods, overall culture, and management. I know ahead of time that some of that criticism is going
to come out sounding like I am aiming it at the controllers and trainees who have been hired in the last 5-6 years. Again, that is not my intention.
Disclaimer 3: What follows will frequently qualify as a thorough foam-at-the-mouth rant. I think air traffic control is the best job in the
entire universe. I adored the work right up to my last transmission. I believe that what the meddling by politicians, political appointees, and
upper-level management has done to the service is a total abomination. They have turned the finest air traffic control system in the world into a
global embarrassment. That belief is going to come across loud and clear. Enter at your own risk.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The topic at hand is controllers either falling asleep (unintentionally) or going to sleep (an intentional act) while on duty. Today I am going to
attempt to finally tie together the contents of my entry with them there roostin' chickens that I keep referring to in the title.
|Mushroom Patch -- Page 14
May 1, 2011 thru June 29, 2011
Let's begin with a little time travel. The year is 1983. It is February, and I have just driven from northern
New Hampshire to Oklahoma City in my green Chevette in order to attend the Air Traffic Academy. If I
manage to find my way to the correct building at the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center at the right
time on the right day, and get sworn in, then I will become an employee of the FAA ... just barely. Before
I can be considered an ATC trainee, I first have to pass the 9-week 'Screen' that the FAA uses to
determine whether someone has the aptitude to become a controller. The entire Air Traffic Academy
course will last 3-1/2 months. The infamous 'screen' (about which I know absolutely nothing as I park my
Chevette) occurs during the last 9 weeks, but a student can wash out at any point in the process.
As my 1983 self goes in search of the auditorium, let me hit you with a statistic. Between 1981, the year
of the air traffic controller's strike when President Reagan fired close to 15,000 controllers, and 1992,
when the FAA changed the screening process, only 57% of all applicants made it through the screen.
Stop and think about that for a moment.
14 May 2011 -- The Perils of Summer
There are dangers associated with the coming of summer. I encountered one today.
I forgot that the screen door to the porch was closed. I tried to walk through the screen this morning.
I think I strained myself.
20 May 2011 -- Everywhere You Look ... Scum (Caution: Whining Ahead)
I am having a "no faith in the innate decency of human beings" kind of day.
It began two days ago, when I was out running errands. I came out of the grocery store to discover that some horse's behind had parked his
truck in the space beside my car ... at an angle. He was too lazy to back out and pull in straight. His rear bumper was actually behind my car, so
I could not get out. I assumed he was running what he considered to be a quick errand, and did it because he figured that he would be in and
out before I had to leave. Either that or he just did not care how his behavior affected other people.
When I could finally leave (I wandered off to window shop at a nearby store, so I never saw the driver of the truck), I continued running errands.
My list took me to the mall. As I was leaving, I pulled up to a stop sign at a three way stop, looked both ways to make sure I would have right of
way when I proceeded, and then pulled into the intersection and began to make a left turn. A large SUV was approaching from my right. It
looked like one of the larger models of the Chevy Suburban. Suffice it to say that if it had hit me, it would have squashed my poor little VW Jetta
into a handful of crumpled scrap metal. The SUV had a stop sign. The driver ran it. I realized at the last instant that she was not going to stop,
and slammed on my brakes. As my anti-lock kicked in and the Jetta came to a shuddering, squealing, complaining stop, the SUV sailed across in
front of me. The lady gave me a "thank you for letting me go first" kind of wave as she went by.
I flipped her a "thank you for almost killing me" salute that required only one finger.
She never even tapped the brakes. If I had to guess, I'd say she might have even accelerated as she entered the intersection (and sailed right
past the stop sign). And to top it all off, she was speeding. The speed limit in there is walking speed. I'm guessing that she was doing 35 or 40
This morning I was perusing the SMF Support Forum, looking for a solution to a very minor annoyance that we have run into at Terra Firma. I
came across a post from a forum owner who claimed to have a 'Ghost Administrator'. (This has absolutely nothing to do with the problem I was
attempting to hunt down.) Intrigued by the 'ghost' part of the title, I popped in to see what it was about. Several months ago, the owner of the
forum hired an SMF guru to make some repairs to his forum. He made the expert an Administrator and gave him full run of the forum and all of its
files, which is standard practice when you bring in a "hired gun" to fix things. Once the expert was finished, the forum owner attempted to demote
the expert back to a regular member. Repeatedly. No matter what he did, the expert continued to show up as an Administrator. Just to make
matters worse, the expert began to mess with the forum. He was deleting members, changing membergroups, messing with threads, etc. The
forum was stuck with an Administrator-Level Troll. I cannot think of a more horrifying situation for a forum, its owner, and its members.
It turns out that the expert had written code into the forum's software files that hard-coded his account as an Administrator. Basically, the guy
hired to repair the forum had hacked it while he was in there. His goal? Based on the types of things he was doing there, I'd have to guess that
he wanted to make life miserable for other people. The owner of the forum had to post the problem at the SMF Support Forum, and it took two of
the SMF software developers looking through the forum's files to find the injected (hacked) code.
What is wrong with people? Why do we have to walk this planet with such shitty individuals? What goes wrong during their childhoods that
makes them turn out this way? For more than a week, I have been dealing with or running into the most selfish, ego-centric, inconsiderate,
unmannerly, crappy, mean-spirited people. It is discouraging.
That is the sum total of my conclusions for today. When you come right down to it, this entry is little more than a 9-paragraph whine. There are
days when we all need to engage in a little whinging. Today, it was my turn.