Let’s Be Clear, Shall We?

Recently the incident on October 21st where the Northwest Flight 188 overflew its destination airport (Minneapolis) while its flight crew were apparently using their laptop computers was in the news again.

Shortly after the incident the FAA was faulted for failing to notify the military in a timely manner about the problem with the flight so military fighter jets never got airborne to intercept the plane.  (My emphasis)

In a statement to The Wall Street Journal Wednesday evening, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said air-traffic controllers “should have notified [the military] more quickly that the plane was not responding.” Local controllers apparently became so focused on trying to re-establish contact that they failed to alert higher-level FAA managers about the problem in a timely manner.

The problem with the above summation is that it’s not accurate.  Air traffic controllers don’t notify the military of such occurrences; that’s an FAA manager’s job.

“Air traffic controllers” wear a headset and talk on the radio to pilots and work air traffic every day.  Since FAA operations managers don’t do that they’re only “air traffic controllers” by a very broad and loose definition.

Air traffic controllers certainly don’t think of FAA operations managers as controllers, and those managers only consider themselves air traffic controllers when the situation warrants; all other times they want to be known as “managers.”

When a controller realizes he doesn’t have a plane/pilot on frequency, he tells his supervisor (Front Line Manager), essentially transferring responsibility for the problem to managers.

Lest you think I’m splitting hairs, the reason the issue rubs me wrong is because until October 1st of this year, air traffic controllers (the kind that talk to pilots and separate air traffic) had been working for the previous three years under imposed work rules after they and FAA management failed to come to a contract agreement.

Under the imposed work rules, air traffic controllers (again, the kind that talk to pilots and separate air traffic) had their pay frozen and a “B” pay scale was instituted for new hires.  There were also a variety of draconian policies in the imposed work rules.

During that same time period however, all other FAA employees, including FAA managers/supervisors, continued to receive raises along with bonuses.  It was pretty obvious who the FAA thought was important and necessary and who should be well-compensated for their work, and who they thought was overpaid.

A lot of veteran air traffic controllers retired because of the way the FAA began treating controllers three years ago.

For the past three years the FAA had no confusion about the difference between managers and air traffic controllers, making a definite distinction between them and singling out air traffic controllers from the rest of its workforce for disparate treatment.

In fact they even changed the title of Operations Supervisor to Front Line Manager just to be sure everyone understood who was large and in charge (managers) and who were peons (the air traffic controllers).

But in the initial news stories about how the FAA mishandled the errant flight it appeared the FAA Administrator made no distinction between air traffic controllers and managers.  Something goes awry and suddenly everyone is an “air traffic controller.”  Curious…

Because of all the press the situation garnered the FAA was forced to do an investigation into the matter and this week news reports again stated:

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration confirmed that air-traffic controllers and their supervisors took an hour longer than they should have to alert the military about a Northwest Airlines flight that lost radio contact and overshot its destination last month.

So far, so good.  (“air-traffic controllers and their supervisors”…)

Air-traffic controllers typically are supposed to notify Norad authorities after 10 minutes of lost radio contact with a given flight, Mr. Babbitt said.

Wrong. (Again.)

Air traffic controllers (the kind that talk to pilots and separate air traffic) never notify NORAD in such a case, not even having the means to do so.  That’s the responsibility of an FAA manager.

It’s the same garbage we saw in the first wave of news stories, blurring the lines of responsibility between FAA managers and air traffic controllers (the kind that talk to pilots and separate air traffic).

Does Mr. Babbitt really not differentiate controllers from managers (i.e. everyone at the air traffic facility is an “air traffic controller”) or is he deliberately confusing the issue to cover for FAA management’s mistakes?

His predecessor, Marion Blakey, certainly showed she knew the difference between the two.

Is Mr. Babbitt totally oblivious to what went on in the FAA the last three years?!

The FAA had no problem for three years making sure (at least within the FAA) that it was clear who were merely air traffic controllers and who were the managers.  But now they seem to be having a problem making that distinction to the media.

In this case the managers in the FAA blew it big time and failed to notify the military in a timely manner.  They had over 30 minutes to make a simple phone call as per procedure and failed to do so.

So much for the “higher standard” FAA management claims they’re held to.  So much for those who harp on controllers about following procedures but can’t follow simple procedures themselves.  So much for some of the very same people who develop many of the procedures actually following them.

I take offense to FAA managers being referred to as “air traffic controllers”.

I’m an air traffic controller.  They’re not.

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