Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Take Your Seats Controllers, The Movie is About to Begin

Photo courtesy FAA
When the call came in to the Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center that the soundtrack to the movie Cleaner was being broadcast on the radio frequency, here's what the FAA supervisor had to say to the two men watching the film. 
(I paraphrase because I was not there to hear it myself.) "If you are going to watch a movie, don't transmit it on the frequency at the same time." He then walked back down the hall to his office.

For this lax enforcement of a policy that prohibits the use of personal entertainment devices at air traffic control stations, the supervisor was suspended. So was the controller who had brought the Samuel Jackson movie with him to work on April 17th.  

The restriction on distractions like music, movies and books is strictly upheld between 6:00 am and 10:00 pm, I am told, when there's enough traffic to keep everyone at the center on-task. On the overnight shift, its another story. 

In fact, watching movies at the control center in Oberlin, Ohio goes on nightly and in several areas of the facility. When one of the controllers watching the film kicked off his shoe it keyed the foot pedal-operated microphone which broadcast the movie's soundtrack to airplanes in the vicinity. The supervisor's lack of concern clearly shows that movie-watching in the center is a don't-ask/don't-tell kind of thing.

This practice is intended to keep workers occupied during long periods of inactivity. And I'll bet it is not unique to Cleveland.

"Now that everybody can put movies and shows on their iPhone, it's probably happening at a rate we can't even imagine," said Missy Cummings, a professor at MIT and specialist in human factors.

Missy says, "People are going to be distracted, they're going to be bored when they have long gaps of time with nothing to do. It's unrealistic to expect a sterile environment and that’s what the FAA wants." I get her point. I keep hearing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood talking all gruff-like-daddy saying, "We're not going to pay controllers to nap." Will somebody please explain to this guy that air traffic control scheduling is working against a safe system? 

Whether you agree with the philosophy that stimulated minds are more desirable for the kind of work that requires focused attention - but only occasionally, the problem with saying one thing and doing another is that eventually, something happens. Now air travelers, politicians and bureaucrats are, with apologies to Casablanca 's Capt. Renault, "shocked, shocked I tell you" to find out that movie watching is going on as well as napping.

Does anybody else out there feel sorry for the poor schlump in Ohio who is demonized for doing the same thing as many others with intentions no more malevolent than trying to stay alert on the midnight shift? 

My friend, Missy must be a great mom, she is so understanding of human frailties. Her work is focused on this conundrum; our complex, highly technical world requires an army of people to work in less-than-optimum conditions while making safety-critical decisions. Anything that helps them achieve that, from napping to movie-watching should be considered.

"Can you allow people to be distracted, recognizing that is the natural human state?", Missy asks and not rhetorically. And if so "how to you bring them back? I tell you, this problem is only going to get worse before it gets better."

This is our dilemma. Its time to wake up and take control before the story comes to an unhappy ending.

UPDATE: April 20, 2011 7:00pm EST
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announces firings of controllers tonight. 
See update here.


Anonymous said...

The same people we expect to manage 15-20 airplanes at once in the daytime are perfectly capable of handling one or two plus intermittent looks at a B-list movie on the midnight shift. If the good Secretary thinks people are just going to sit there staring at a blank scope for hours waiting for something to show up, well, that's not very reasonable, is it? The hysteria over all this is just ridiculous...

Rob Mark said...

Yawwwwn. Oh sorry, didn't realize it was my turn to comment Christine. Long nights I guess.

Snoozing controllers has been around since people began working night shifts and always will.

Too many controllers working those "rattler" schedules that begin earlier and earlier each morning, as well as 6 day weeks, actually caught up with controllers years ago.

I fear the new crop of less experienced controllers at FAA are not quite as good at keeping it under wraps as the old guys did.

Now Mr. LaHood's comments sound very Republican, very narrow minded to me.

Oh wait ... he IS a politician who knows absolutely nothing about transportation.

The Prez must really have owed someone a favor when he choose him. I just hope this mess doesn't cost Randy Babbitt his job because he's next on LaHood's chopping block.

Aviatrix said...

Exactly, Anonymous. In Canada, at least, they are specifically screening and training for people who are able to maintain a three dimensional picture while carrying on a couple of dozen conversations, including remembering which ones were in English, which were in French, and the various special requests of all those pilots.

It's unreasonable to ask those flexible minds to stay awake and do nothing. It's better that the audio be broadcast in the cab than that the controllers wear earbuds, because that could mask the sound of an actual call coming in. Need to watch what you're listening to and mute it when an aircraft calls. A certain remote air traffic service unit used to be known for porn audible in the background of their transmissions.