Thursday, April 28, 2011

ATC - Kinda' High Tech/Low Tech and Always Will Be

ATC simulator at FAA Center in Oklahoma City
Just a few days after taking the Flight Safety Foundation to task for publishing what can only be considered outrageously inaccurate statistics in 2007 regarding airport ramp events, I have to commend the Foundation's present boss for his excellent commentary today on the future of air traffic control in the United States. William Voss, writing for CNN, does the seemingly impossible, explaining the nation's air traffic control system and its hot subtopic, Next Gen, in a way that ordinary users of the system can surely understand. Then, like a good controller, he takes them to the next sector, explaining that high tech is good, but the low tech human is and will remain a key wild card in the system.

Regular readers of Flying Lessons know I'm a bit agog over the capabilities of Next Gen, but Bill's right. The overlay of sophisticated technology that marries the power of GPS and computer-fast calculations ain't all upside. As Lady Diana once said of her then-husband - Prince Charles, "there are three of us in the marriage". (Bet you didn't think I could incorporate a gratuitous reference to British royalty during this very special week in an article on air traffic control? Well, I just did.) In the case of the American ATC system, the 3rd person is the marriage is the controller.

So we're up to our ears these days in discussions about the foibles of controllers who are an essential part of the system. They've been sleeping, they've been watching movies, they've been acting generally, well...human, as they toil away in their dark towers helping keep airplanes safely separated. In his closing paragraph, Voss writes, that firing controllers for slip-ups like these may exacerbate the problem rather than remedy it.

"It is far more important to use chronic but minor mistakes to identify a deeper problem, such as irrational shift scheduling or unusual controller fatigue, and determine rational, science-based solutions, rather than fire controllers and drive mistakes deeply underground, unseen and unaddressed, until they emerge to create a tragedy." he writes.

Dave Schraeder FAA ATC instructor supervisor
While Voss was penning this thoughtful examination of the ATC system, I was touring the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City, where over the past five years, some seven thousand air traffic controllers have been trained.

Its almost comical how low-tech is the introduction these student receive. Plastic model airliners on a airport runway that calls to mind the Lego tables my boys used to play on.  But snickering stops as soon as one enters the control tower simulator where the education continues. Two and a half months of classes here, one to two years of on-the-job-training at the end of it all, and the system gets a human orchestrating a mix of high technology tools. 

We tourists to the Monroney Center, a group of a dozen aviation reporters from the US and Europe, were told that earlier that day, "executives from headquarters" had given students a lecture about professional responsibility. Of course our ears picked up at this. "Was it part of the new ATC safety stand down we've heard all about?" But we were assured it was a regular aspect of controller training. It's not too much of a stretch to assume the students were probably more attentive in light of recent news. 

And well they should be because laying aside the complicating factors of fatigue, boredom, technology overload, inconsistent scheduling, and just plain goof-ups and errors of judgment, the reality of air traffic control is that it is high tech/low tech system with a human at the center and it will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.

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