FAA and Another Big Stick

I’ve kind of fallen behind on my blogging again even though I did/do have some things I wanted to write about.

I don’t normally blog about work with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as an air traffic controller; there are a lot of web sites that do that full time.

But a day ago something happened at work that I need to get off my chest.  (This is a long one, so you might want to grab a drink now before you settle in and start reading…)

I had a disagreement with my supervisor at work over something that happened on Monday.  My supervisor is also the training supervisor, and he was sitting plugged in for an on-the-job-training (OJT) session on the “D-side/manual position” with one of our developmental air traffic controllers (air traffic controller trainees) doing a “skill check”.

A skill-check is FAA-speak for a session where the training supervisor monitors a trainee to ascertain if the trainee is progressing adequately in training and if there are any problems where additional training or emphasis on training might be needed.

In an enroute center the “D-side” is the control position that assists an “R-side” position, or the radar controller.  The radar controller talks to the airplanes on the radio and gives clearances directly to the pilots, and is considered the controller in charge for that sector.  Sectors can be operated by a R-side alone who performs both R-side and D-side job functions, but a sector never has just a D-side position.

I was working the R-side for this skill check with the trainee.  During that session, the training supervisor told the trainee to perform a control action that I thought was unnecessary.  I didn’t say anything at the time, but the next day confronted the supervisor about the situation, telling him that I disagreed with what he had told the trainee to do as I didn’t such actions would help the trainee learn how to become an air traffic controller.

We had a short conversation in front of two other controllers (one of which was the aforementioned trainee’s primary instructor) wherein I tried to explain why I thought what the supervisor told the trainee to do didn’t help teach them to do the job.  The supervisor simply defended his instruction.  Eventually I closed the conversation with the statement that “I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.”

Several hours later I was told to report back to the supervisors’ office for a “performance meeting”.  Performance meetings are used to discuss air traffic controllers’ performance to point out problems/shortcomings and suggest corrections if necessary.

Under certain circumstances controllers tend to view impromptu “performance meetings” with a fair amount of trepidation.  Air traffic controllers are randomly monitored and their performance assessed, but there is a lot of minutiae in the job that controllers could potentially be gigged for but normally aren’t.  That is, unless someone wants to send a message…

When I got back to the office I saw that the supervisor had queued up the air traffic session on “Falcon”, which is a Windows program that can playback the radar and audio from any sector.  I immediately had my suspicions about the discussion that was going to ensue.

Unfortunately during the same session I had made what turned out to be a bad judgment call on how to handle the in-trail spacing for two aircraft destined for Chicago O’Hare airport.

This sector is over 400 miles from O’Hare, but it’s where we start sequencing aircraft.  Since it’s around an hour or more flying time to O’Hare dramatic action to attain the in-trail spacing isn’t always necessary.

The trailing aircraft was behind but much faster than the aircraft in front, so I opted to do what we call a “blow by” where we let the faster aircraft go by the slower.

The alternative was to try to speed up the slower aircraft and slow the faster aircraft, which would be detrimental to both (the slower would burn extra gas going fast, and the faster would have to slow significantly).  My choice was to let the faster go by; a judgment call of the sort air traffic controllers make every day, made easier by the fact that there were only two aircraft to be sequenced.

I also assumed that the in-trail spacing required on the two aircraft was 15 miles, which is a standard we often use.  Sometimes we also space O’Hare traffic 30 miles in trail.

To help facilitate letting the faster aircraft go by I rerouted the slower aircraft on a slightly longer route.  As he would have to fly a longer route and the faster aircraft would fly a shorter one it would help get the faster aircraft in front sooner.

After letting the next controller know of my plan I handed off the pair to the next controller who jokingly commented that I was “packing him”, which is controller slang for handing the adjacent controller a bad situation.

However, he then asked the supervisor how many miles in trail we needed on the two aircraft and was told that they needed to be 30 miles in trail, instead of the 15 I had assumed.  Oops!

This information now made my plan a poor one.  Picking up twice the mileage I thought we needed meant the next controller was going to have to do more work and that my original plan probably wasn’t a good one.

So I now owe that controller an apology and a beer for having to work a little bit harder because of my errant assumption.  Getting twice the spacing I thought we needed was going to make him do more work.  You know what happens when we assume…

We have a saying in air traffic control, “Anyone can make a good plan work.”  It’s a joke meaning we know we can fix our mistakes; making a bad initial decision doesn’t doom anything; it just means someone ends up working a bit more to make things work out.

The controller wasn’t mad about having to fix my mistake; in fact he was making jokes about it.  It’s no big deal but controllers will give each other crap about it when it happens.  But the odds are some day I’ll be fixing one of his mistakes too; it’s just the way things work and we all know it.    That’s why the air traffic system really works; air traffic controllers work as a team and help each other (and sometimes fix each others’ mistakes).

I wish I could say that FAA management is part of the same team…

Over two years ago the FAA administration imposed work rules on controllers, asserting that they were going to “wrest control” of the air traffic control system from the controllers and fix everything that ailed the FAA.  For maximum beat-down effect on the workforce they imposed these rules on Labor Day in 2006.

They believed that strong management was the key to everything and that the “whiny” controllers (who would complain about things like not getting help from management and the tools to do their job well)  needed to be silenced.

With a big stick FAA management went about instituting what they called a “culture change”, including instituting a vague, undefined dress code and even firing eleven controllers at the New York TRACON for failing to check a box on a form, mostly just to show us they were large and in charge.  It’s management by intimidation.

Unfortunately for the U.S. taxpayer the fired controllers sued the FAA and all got their jobs back (with back pay) when the FAA settled with the controllers realizing that the arbitrator was going to rule that the firings were unlawful.  All the firings really did was to give the eleven controllers paid time off and made them (and controllers across the country) realize how arbitrary and nasty FAA management could be.

But I don’t think the FAA really cared; it was all part of a grand plan to put all the nation’s air traffic controllers on notice:  play the game our way or we’ll mess with you.  It’s what I call the “Big Stick” management technique.

But I digress…

FAA management often talks about empowering controllers with information, but why wasn’t I told what the in-trail requirements were for those two aircraft heading for Chicago?  I made an assumption that turned out to be incorrect, but why wasn’t I told that we needed 30 miles in trail instead of 15?

In larger air traffic facilities there is a Traffic Management Unit (TMU) which is a bunch of air traffic controllers and supervisors whose only job is to oversee and manage spacing and routings for aircraft that are supposed to reduce air traffic delays.

Our local TMU is overseen by a national unit called the “Command Center” that watches traffic throughout the country and is supposed to coordinate flow of air traffic between the various TM units at the various facilities.

So there are a lot of people getting paid a lot of money to formulate traffic management plans across the country.  But those plans have to eventually be disseminated to the air traffic controllers that are talking to the airplanes and  actually carry out those plans.

Years ago TMU had people with walkie-talkies in the operational areas who would relay flow plans from the Traffic Management Unit to controllers in the sectors.  Then they stopped doing that and called controllers in the sector over our “land lines” (land lines are essentially dedicated phone lines where controllers can call each other using a single press of a button).

Over the years the process wherein flow plans are communicated to controllers has become more and more inefficient.  Now the procedure is that the local TMU passes information about spacing through the area Front Line Manager (FLM) or supervisor, who is supposed to pass it on to the controller.

I can only speculate that it’s a power trip/job justification thing to have the sequencing information passed through the supervisor, but it’s hardly an efficient or effective method.  It’s just one more person to possibly drop the ball as it’s passed down the line.

In my case I wasn’t even given the information.  But not to worry:  in the new FAA it’s my fault for not asking; not anyone else’s fault for not giving me the information.

Don’t get me wrong; I knew the rules and I made an assumption.  My fault.  I admit and accept that.  I told the supervisor that in our meeting.

Air traffic controllers know we’re always left holding the bag; if anything goes wrong we’ll be blamed as we’re where the “rubber hits the road”.  But that’s fine, and we’re all big boys (and girls) and we accept that responsibility; responsibility is part of our job.  People who don’t want responsibility tend to take other jobs within the FAA.

There are lots of stupid rules/policies within the FAA and sometimes controllers choose to ignore them.  And we accept the consequences of that.

So I screwed up the spacing on the two aircraft to O’Hare.  I made a bad judgment call based on my failure to essentially “beg” for information about enroute spacing on O’Hare arrivals, and my coworker had to fix my bad call.

But the reason I’ve been blathering on is that there is no relationship between my mistake and the criticism I directed at the supervisor.  I criticize my supervisor for something he did, and he turns it around and criticizes something I did.  And the underlying current in the equation is that if I have performance shortcomings I could ultimately be disciplined or fired.

I thought we had a professional disagreement, and next thing I know he’s firing a warning “shot over the bow” by questioning my performance.  Forget his bad call; I criticize his performance and he’s going to retaliate by bringing out the big stick to beat me with.

It’s the “You’re stupid.”, rebutted with “Well, you’re stupider” conversation with a veiled threat added for good measure.

The worst part is that this same supervisor tells us regularly that he welcomes feedback.  But I give him critical feedback and he doesn’t want to hear it.

This is the problem with the way FAA managers view criticism.  When a controller makes a significant mistake while working air traffic, after the fact managers will listen to the recordings, watch replays of the radar scope data and write up reports about what happened.

Allegedly these investigations/debriefs are meant to expose not only controller performance shortcomings but also system shortcomings.  It’s not supposed to be punitive; it’s supposed to be corrective: find out what went wrong and try to prevent it from happening again.

But most of the time air traffic operational errors and incidents are simply due to human error.  They’re usually a result of a series of mistakes that no one recognizes or corrects.

Eliminating human error is impossible for human beings.  Although better equipment and procedures could minimize them, human errors will always occur with humans in the loop.  And the FAA has been ineffective in getting better equipment and procedures to controllers to help the situation; I’m still separating traffic the exact same way today that I was over 18 years ago when I first finished my air traffic training.

Often the investigative process/findings of operational errors come off to controllers as punitive.   This is because many FAA managers believe that all errors are preventable and discount human error altogether.  They believe that if controllers make mistakes, they’re just not trying hard enough.

So in a misguided attempt to motivate controllers to perform better the FAA uses fear: the big stick in order to intimidate and punish controllers to not make mistakes.  They have a scapegoat for all the system’s ills in air traffic controllers.

They routinely perform “investigations” wherein they first decide what happened then selectively gather data to support that claim, ignoring anything that contradicts what they want to believe.   In other words, FAA managers choose to bastardize the investigative process and make it punitive instead of actually trying to use it to improve the air traffic system.

And that’s why FAA managers don’t like constructive criticism directed at them.  They don’t know what constructive criticism is; they don’t understand it and want no part of it.  To them criticism is bad, period.  And they refuse to admit when they make mistakes, because in their minds mistakes are usually associated with punishment.

In fact FAA managers reward controllers who don’t criticize and complain about the job the FAA does.  If you keep your mouth shut in the FAA you’re considered a better employee than those who point out problems and try to change things to make them better.  Controllers who are “buddies” with managers are rewarded, regardless of how hard they work or the job they do in the sector.

I criticize a lot of what the FAA does mostly because I know we can do better.  I feel an obligation to try and get the American taxpayer (including me) the most “bang for their air traffic buck.”  And personally I don’t like idly sitting by being part of any operation that I know can be better.  I want to improve what we do in the air traffic system.

But the FAA wants no part of that, and they use their big stick instead to silence those who speak out.  They see those who speak out as merely an annoyance.

I file written suggestions and safety reports in order to improve the job we do and make the air traffic system safer.  The FAA ignores those reports; instead of examining the issues they dismiss the reports as not being filed in the proper venue or proper format.

But the FAA is required to respond to the documented/reported problems.  They don’t really investigate or do anything about the issues, but they still have to respond in writing.  And because they don’t want to do that, they see me as an annoyance.

Even though I’m trying to improve the system, by filing those reports FAA management considers me a troublesome/bad employee.

And lest you think it’s just a problem at our facility, think again.  The FAA as an agency clearly favors this approach.

Law-enforcement officials are investigating at least nine separate cases in which Federal Aviation Administration managers are accused of intimidating or punishing employees for pointing out safety problems, according to internal FAA documents.

Kevin, a friend at work, has blogged about problems with FAA managers here, here and here.

Unfortunately controllers can be disciplined by managers if they say something the managers don’t want to hear; we can’t do the same in return.  They have the power and they’ve shown they will abuse it.

And that’s ultimately the problem with power-crazed, petty, vindictive FAA managers.  They have the power to jerk around their employees at will (and do).  They might even try to fire you.  They’ve got their big sticks and they’re willing to hit employees with it.

That’s why working for the FAA is unsatisfying.  They don’t value their employees’ opinions and regardless of what they say ultimately don’t want to make any real effort to improve.  And anyone who tries to criticize them or otherwise force management’s hand to improve will potentially be punished for it.

They claim they value their employees but don’t believe in meaningful reward systems; only punitive ones.

Criticize something FAA management does and they may try and get even.   My fear of reprisal from FAA management for documenting here their misdeeds  has dissuaded me from doing so until now.

This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened to me or one of my coworkers, and unfortunately I’m sure it won’t be the last.

Update 2/26:   Here’s another example of the same attitude from one of our nation’s politicians as well…


  1. Nice post, Tim. You nailed it.

    I had high hopes that our area manager would be an easy fellow to work with when he was first assigned to us as I’d only had pleasant conversations with him in years prior. I couldn’t have been more wrong. He’s a very petty man. He has it in his ‘power’ to foster a workplace where we work together as adults and openly exchange ideas and criticisms but he’s not gone one step in the direction of that openness. It’s sadder yet when you see supes beneath him carrying on that sort of culture and feeling justified in doing so.

    Just imagine for a moment that you’re a supe or manager. Wouldn’t you think that the measure of whether or not you were doing a good job would be the respect you garnered not only from those above you but also those below you? How much of a puppet does one need to be to only approach the job with the big stick mentality? I don’t see a lot of synapses at work there.

    I’m hopeful that Obama’s administration can deflate some of these over-inflated egos and bring some balance back to our workplace so that our words aren’t dismissed and heavy-handedness by management is no longer the norm.

  2. Thanks, Kev.

    Ultimately I don’t believe most of the FAA managers are competent or qualified enough to be leaders. Check out the link I added at the end of the entry and you’ll see the kind of politicians our managers got their marching orders from.

    So with direction from above the rampant abuse of controllers might eventually slow down, but the FAA will still be a misguided, leader-less organization filled with petty, mean, abusive and vengeful managers.

    There have always been managers who abused controllers in the past as well; we just had a process whereby they could be spanked for that abuse. Now they’re totally unchecked. Hopefully the current administration will rectify that at least.

    We spend years training to become air traffic controllers; managers spend a week in Palm Coast, Florida learning how to become managers.

    Most of them are horrible as managers, and when they are confronted with that fact they lash out at those who make that fact evident: controllers.

    Most of them should be fired, but we know that will never happen.

  3. This video is part taken at a hearing regarding the Cactus Flight 1549 (US Airways) that successfully ditched in the Hudson river on January 15th, 2009 after losing both engines to multiple bird strikes.

    At about 5:17 in the video Rep. Mica appears to fire one of those “shots over the bow” at the air traffic controller that worked the aircraft during the incident.

    After the controller stated that he did not see a “primary” target on the radar scope that would have possibly indicated a flock of birds, Mica says that “they [apparently referring to the NTSB?] will find out what the radar was set at” which to certain observers (like me) seems to be a veiled threat to the controller that if he’s lying that he will be busted.

    The problem is that we also show primary targets on our radar scopes, but there is no way to tell what a primary target is, so it is a moot point anyway, as the controller would have had no way of knowing whether the primary was a flock of birds or not or even what altitude it was at, even if it would have been displayed.

    It’s evident that Rep. Mica has no clue whatsoever how the air traffic system works, even suggesting that redesigned airspace in the New York area would have somehow prevented the bird strike by giving the controller options, missing the fact that a bird strike is a random, almost unpreventable freak occurrence.

    No amount of “options” (especially redesigned airspace!) for the controller would have prevented it.

    But since Mica’s been attacking air traffic controllers for years; I guess he’s not going to stop now. He’s one of the politicians that has set the standards for the “new” FAA’s attitude toward controllers as well.

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