Embarrassing the FAA

On December 17th 2009, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released to the public the docket on their investigation into Northwest Flight 188, the plane that on October 21st inexplicably failed to talk to air traffic controllers for over an hour and then overflew its destination airport (Minneapolis) before realizing their mistake.

This incident made national headlines, in part because of the FAA’s delaying in notifying the military (through the Domestic Events Network or DEN), that in turn failed to get fighter jets airborne to intercept the wayward flight.

“Air traffic controllers” were faulted in the press for failing to follow procedure.  However, as I noted in an earlier blog, it was actually FAA managers that chose to ignore procedure in handling the situation.

I had almost completed writing a two part entry highlighting parts of the NTSB Factual Report, but wasn’t going to publish it in part because I was scooped by this site which has a much more concise version of what wasn’t done.

Eventually I published it anyway and it can be found here and here, in part because it’s relevant to what I’ve written here.

Ultimately (and I would believe most importantly) the reason the FAA failed to notify the military in a timely manner was because several FAA managers failed to do their jobs.  They admitted to significant errors in judgment, including choosing not to follow procedures and FAA orders.

But the very next day after the incident, all controllers at my facility were briefed in writing on how to handle flights that lose radio contact (NORDO).  Then a few weeks later we got mandatory all-hands Powerpoint briefings that included how to notify the Domestic Events Network (DEN), including the phone number for the DEN.

However notifying the DEN of NORDO aircraft is something a controller would never be required to do, as that’s the job of the Operations Manager (OM).

But the OM (a manager) failed in the case of Northwest 188 to do that.

So why would they brief controllers who would never be in a position whereby they would notify the DEN of how to do it?

Then last week we got another briefing about the incident from our Quality Assurance Manager (QA).  It included about 15 minutes of playback of the air traffic controllers voice and sector traffic recordings while the flight transited our airspace.  The QA manager noted that controllers at my facility (ZMP) did an excellent job handling the flight.

Afterward he briefly noted that the managers had failed to do their jobs, including stating that the “non-duty OM” failed to pass the information on the NORDO aircraft to the OM.

When I inquired further I found that “non-duty OM” and “unofficially” staffing the watch desk (as stated in the NTSB report) meant that the OM that initially was told of the NORDO aircraft (and didn’t pass on that information) wasn’t actually signed onto the position.  In other words, the OM that was signed in wasn’t performing the job functions of the OM; the other OM was supposed to be doing that.

The position log for the OM (the log that shows who was working that position) of course didn’t reflect who was actually working the position, because it was all “unofficial”…

I guess that also explains why there wasn’t a proper position relief briefing done or recorded that ideally would have ensured that the information about the NORDO flight was passed on to the next OM.

Regardless, the reason the incident got as much attention in the national press is because some FAA managers failed to do their jobs, which resulted in embarrassment to the FAA.

But they’ve briefed air traffic controllers at my facility on how to do both their jobs (and the managers’ jobs too) several times since the incident, even though our QA manager admitted controllers at my facility did an exemplary job of handling the incident.

If that’s the case, then why did controllers need all the briefings?  Since the managers are the ones who failed to do their jobs, doesn’t it make sense that they be the ones to get all the briefings, and not the controllers?

Or is the tact really just a smokescreen for the fact that the managers that didn’t do their jobs properly?  Are our managers covering for their fellow managers that screwed up?

Then this story hit the headlines as well:

(ABC News) – The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spent five million dollars this month to bring 3, 600 managers to a conference in Atlanta that FAA whistleblowers and critics say was little more than an excuse to throw a three-week-long Christmas party.

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Part of the justification for the event was:

“Given the complexity of the contract and the need for managers to fully understand it, the training had to be done face-to-face not through a memo or webcast,” the FAA said in a statement.

But the new contract has been in place since October 1st of 2009, and as of today the FAA has still failed to distribute printed copies of the contract to its workforce.  Wouldn’t it have helped managers to “understand” the contract by actually giving them copies of the contract when it went into effect?

It’s just more rationalizing and covering for FAA management’s bad judgment.

What an embarrassment…

5 comments

  1. I was sitting at lunch today with a couple guys from the area plus one other. The other is a guy I respect as both a worker and a person. He picked up on our collective cynicism (what are you gonna do?) and wondered ‘why the attitudes’? He was happy for the job and the pay and didn’t care at all what others around him were doing or how they were being compensated. I thought, ‘hmmm…it must be nice to be able to watch all this hypocrisy around you and not give a rip’ but I didn’t challenge him. It occurred to me later that the reason we differ in our approach may be because I care more. I care enough to want more for all of us in our place of work. It’s possible that he’s closer to retirement than we’re all aware and if that’s the case I suppose I can understand where he’s coming from.

    I don’t think I’ll ever stop questioning the way we operate or the things we overlook or choose to focus on. It’s the way I’m wired. I’d love to put my head in the sand and pretend all is well but that would mean my rear end would be sticking up and we all know what would happen next.

    Getting back to your post…we had a meeting with our area manager last week and he boasted how he had a more responsible position than any controller. Funny how when he found himself at the center of the NWA188 incident he was suddenly not the responsible one. That alone speaks volumes about what is wrong with our agency.

    Now more than ever we need to be hammering on what is wrong.

    Once again…nice post.

  2. Kev,

    I think it’s too frustrating to care too much in the FAA, because although you can fight city hall you probably can’t beat city hall.

    But I fight the fight because it’s the right thing to do, in spite of the fact that my experience has been that middle and upper management in the FAA doesn’t care to change or make any real effort to do better.

    I don’t have a lot of respect for those “happy go lucky” employees. Somehow they manage to stay oblivious to what’s going on around them and/or fail to acknowledge what a crappy job our organization does at so many things. They have their heads deep in the sand.

    But the FAA loves those guys; it’s what they want and the attitude they encourage: employees that ultimately don’t care to do better and that are happy with mediocrity and just getting by.

    The FAA is an wholly underachieving organization, due in large part to the people in charge of the organization: its managers.

    And the fact that I’m still doing my job almost exactly the same way I was doing it twenty years ago, in spite of all the significant technological advances over that same time period outside the FAA demonstrates how little forward progress the FAA is capable of and/or interested in making.

  3. Pretty good posts here my man! You will have to let me know if Ms. R gets any kind of spanking. God knows the FAA won’t let a person like her get away any time soon, too many boxes she can fill for the overall diversity of this, the 214th best place to work in the gov. And Kevin…after one year of retirement I get to adjust the $$$ amount getting pulled from the TSP and guess what? My take-home starting in Jan will be the same as my take-home before I retired. Hang in as long as you can. I miss the traffic and some of the people, but it is nicer going beddy-bye pretty much the same time and getting up pretty much the same time and not seeing some of the insufferable pricks I used to see. You could ride what, another 50 miles per day with a regular routine? At any rate, y’all have a good 2010.

    ex-OG

  4. Glad to hear retirement is treating you well, OG!

    It’s probably more enjoyable for you to realize that everything’s still the same as it was when you left and that you made the right choice to choose to stop suffering at the hands of the FAA.

    Kev has yet to have learned that lesson. That, and apparently he’s a masochist at heart… 🙂

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