Dodging Responsibility for ERAM

FAA management doesn’t really like to make decisions.  That’s primarily because they know if they make decisions they can potentially be held accountable for those decisions.

So they’ve decided that the safest tact is to avoid making decisions whenever possible.

If those same managers started as air traffic controllers, part of the reason many of them quit working airplanes and took management positions so quickly after completing training is that because many didn’t like making lots of real time decisions as controllers they knew they would be held accountable for later.  (That and most of them weren’t very good at making decisions as air traffic controllers.)

As an example, a few years ago I vividly remember witnessing a conversation a since-retired controller had with his immediate supervisor (front line manager or FLM), as it was a classic exchange between and FAA manager and employee looking for policy guidance about how to do his job.

At the time there were four or more different position relief briefing checklists available to controllers, all of them slightly different.

The position relief checklist is used when one controller takes over a position from another controller (used during a position relief briefing), and is intended to make sure all the necessary information is passed on from one controller to the next and nothing is omitted.  The position relief briefing is a safety-critical process.

Since there were so many different position relief checklists, the controller asked his supervisor what should have been a simple question:  which checklist was he was supposed to be using?

The manager’s answer to his question? “This is the one I use.”

Since that wasn’t a real answer to his question, the controller rephrased, asking, “So that is the checklist I am supposed to use?”

The response from the manager was the same carefully worded, intentionally evasive, “This is the one I use.”

Since he wasn’t getting a definitive answer the controller asked the same question repeatedly and the manager repeated the same response several times.  When it was obvious he wasn’t going to get a real answer to his question, the controller gave up.

In the case of a question about a procedure controllers use many times throughout the course of their work day, a controller couldn’t get definitive guidance from his own supervisor.

This is the kind of work direction controllers routinely get from FAA management.  Controllers are often left to figure problems out on their own because FAA management refuses to give real guidance on procedures and policies.

The management culture in the FAA has proven time and time again that they’re all about dodging responsibility and are actually averse to making decisions.

So it came as no surprise last fall when once the FAA realized how badly the ERAM project was going they decided it was time to bring the controller’s union (NATCA) on board with the project.  It was time for FAA management to start transferring responsibility for ERAM to the controller workforce and its union.

Before that, the FAA had been going at the project solo, mostly because they realized that the union would likely object to too many parts of the project (primarily the fact that ERAM was so bug-ridden it wasn’t fit for use) and addressing the many problems would result in it taking longer to deploy.  The FAA is/was more concerned about delays with the ERAM program than with whether or not it actually works.

But at the beginning of December the FAA was savvy enough to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the union on the ERAM Implementation and Deployment.

The subject of the MOU came up recently because I was talking to one of our ERAM cadre (one of the controllers helping test ERAM), who was under the impression that the union ERAM cadre members had the authority to halt the ERAM project for safety concerns.  The MOU however, does not give the union that authority.

Unfortunately for the union and its membership, it’s not a very good MOU, and the way it’s written the union has instead now positioned itself as a patsy or fall-guy for the shortcomings of the project.

Granted, as it was getting “invited” to be involved with the ERAM project at the eleventh hour was pretty much a no-win situation for the union and its members.

If the union stood by and didn’t get involved with ERAM, the FAA would portray it as being part of the problem.  It wouldn’t be in the best interest of the union to be seen as obstructionist with respect to new technology that’s part of NextGen, and anything that helps controllers do their jobs better is ultimately in the best interest of the bargaining unit.  Additionally controllers need to be involved in developing those tools too so that they’re useful, in spite of the fact that it’s clear that the FAA isn’t too concerned about that.

But the MOU is weak because it doesn’t give the union any real authority with respect to the ERAM project.

It’s filled with clauses like “…shall be provided the opportunity to comment…” and “…shall be allowed to collaborate…”, “…provided the opportunity to participate…”, “…to make recommendations…”, “…prioritize problems…”, “…to attend briefings…” and “…to participate…”.

Nowhere in the MOU does it say that the union has the authority to stop the ERAM project to force the FAA and/or the developer (Lockheed Martin) to correct significant safety problems with it.

Instead it says:

“If the Union reasonably believes that ERAM is having an adverse impact on the National Airspace System, it shall expeditiously provide its concerns and basis for them to the Agency.  The Agency shall expeditiously evaluate the Union’s concerns and convey any proposed actions regarding their disposition to the Union.”

So in other words, the union can submit its concerns about the project to the FAA.  But the FAA is in no way obliged to actually do something about the concerns.

Given the fact that the FAA has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to test the ERAM software on the flying public even with its significant known bugs, coupled with its normal lackadaisical approach towards safety related issues, makes it doubtful that any concerns the union has with ERAM would halt or delay the program now.

If the FAA was truly interested in collaborating with the union and its membership it would have brought them in on the ERAM project years earlier.  Instead, they waited until the last possible moment to sign an MOU, and only then as a damage control measure.

If ERAM ultimately fails or results in a media event, the union will now be a partner in that failure.  If it’s a success, the FAA will take credit for the entire project.

Although I normally don’t give the FAA any credit for being that savvy, in the case of the ERAM MOU, the FAA positioned itself perfectly to avoid responsibility for any failures of the project.  It doesn’t come as any surprise though, because after all, that’s what FAA management is really good at.

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