The Other NextGen

NextGen ~ Air traffic panacea or pricey placebo? Quantum jump ahead or just a head ache? Having pushed my share of tin in a decidedly lower tech air traffic environment, I'm really not qualified to say. The tools of the trade have evolved considerably since I left the boards but there is one thing I learned a long time ago hasn't changed a bit. Riding along comfortably in a high-mileage status quo isn't the best means of travel if you plan on effectively navigating that tricky road into the future. But I'm not going to waste time on that "ongoing transformation of the National Airspace System" touted on FAA's website. If interested, you can go here: video . I recommend checking it out only if you're not working mids and are having trouble sleeping.

I'm talking about another kind of next generation ~ namely the next generation of air traffic controllers. What I saw in the second half of my career was a system for training new controllers that was already in retrograde. But let me take you back to the first half.

When I started my FAA career at Big Time, it wasn't really so big. Busy? Yes . . . but still operating far below a capacity we couldn't have imagined at the time. Many of the guys I met during those first months on the job had been there for several years before PATCO came into existence. A pragmatic and persevering bunch, they were accustomed to fighting and losing their own battles, then dealing with the defeat. Facility policies or procedures were routinely imposed on the workforce by management. Eventual compromise, if any, was hailed by the controllers as somewhat of a victory.

There was, however, that one particular area where concessions were neither anticipated or accepted. In fact, the staunch unwillingness by either side of the bargaining table to compromise was as strong as management's recalcitrance in most other matters. It was actually one of very few subjects everyone agreed on. So ~ what was it that could bring anarchists and autocrats together under the same tent? I remember it like yesterday.

No epiphany moment here. This is a subject that, like a splinter under the fingernail, has been lodged in the air traffic control profession for years. I'm only writing about it now because it's still important to me and because I sense, from friends who are still working airplanes, that the situation is becoming more acute. I'm not just talking about controller training. I'm also talking about the more nebulous concept of facility performance standards. The gradual decline of each is gnawing away at overall skill levels, morale and, inevitably, aviation safety itself.

Believe me, I don't like having to invoke that old bromide ~ aviation safety. In my years on the boards, I heard it overused by PATCO and eventually NATCA to characterize almost anything they disagreed with. But this really was and still is a safety issue.

Take the case of Bobby Joe for example. "BJ" and I began our careers on the same day in the early '70s. Back then, we were among the next generation of controllers coming into Big Time. Former military, BJ was an affable fellow, good humored and as glad to be there as the rest of us. During those first few weeks of classroom training, one thing became clear though. BJ's study habits fell a little short of satisfactory. Always the last to complete his written tests, he also finished with the lowest passing grades. It was okay though. Add a little self-deprecating humor to a buoyant disposition and it'll easily float a guy way out of his depth. Most everyone was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt ~ at least for a while.

On the job training (OJT) was a constant struggle. Although the controllers liked BJ personally, training him was rarely a gratifying experience. All the trainees started their run through the OJT gauntlet on Flight Data/Clearance Delivery. This meant a solid understanding of routes, altitude assignments, computer input formats and clearance delivery phraseology was imperative. Where other trainees eventually demonstrated fluency in these skills, BJ blundered along, skipping or stumbling over many of the essentials. His training sessions often finished up under a withering barrage of assertions by instructors that he was unprepared to work the position. Was it laziness, low aptitude or was he simply too slow? It didn't really matter because nobody was going to be washed out on Clearance Delivery; even if it portended bigger problems ahead. Opinions were forming among his coworkers though. People's expectations declined and, when instructors talked about BJ, doubt crept into their conversation.

Ground Control training was even more troublesome for BJ. There was good reason. This old airport was conceived and constructed during the piston and propeller days when hours could pass between an arrival and the next departure. As the years passed, renovations and updates were thrown into the mix. Terminal buildings grew larger, runways grew longer and new ones were added. All the while, a bewildering network of taxiways spread across the field like some kind of alien ground cover. As the airport's geometry grew increasingly complex, so did the Ground Control position.

BJ struggled with it all, especially at night. To keep up with a dimly lit labyrinth of vague silhouettes, moving lights and airline logos; good strip management was fundamental. Everyone had their own system for sorting out where each airplane was; both coming and going. Without it, confusion could set in quickly. Airplanes instructed to hold at some darkened intersection could easily be forgotten until an irate pilot piped up. Even worse was the possibility of a runway incursion or that a business jet, barreling toward the general aviation ramp, might come face-to-face with an outbound air carrier on the same taxiway. Things could get ugly quick and you literally couldn't see it coming.

BJ's training hours added up, approaching their upper limit when he finally checked out. He tried hard but never managed to develop that "swagger" of confidence on Ground Control that his peers demonstrated. Working the position, BJ always wore an anxious expression on his face. The job got done but it seemed to be taking a toll on BJ and everyone else on the crew. He reminded me of the teenagers in one of those Hollywood "slasher" movies, creeping gingerly through an abandoned factory after dark ~ expecting something horrible to happen at any moment. Since it sometimes did, other controllers in the tower had to be extra vigilant about what BJ was doing on Ground. Working one control position is challenging enough but having to keep an eye on another one can cause undue overload.

Local Control training quickly proved too much for him. Although he knew the applicable rules, his reflexes and, of course, that impossible to teach sixth sense that alerts controllers when something needs to be done never fully developed. Some controllers wanted to see his training terminated long before he ran out of allotted hours. We came to expect go-arounds and missed departure slots when BJ got busy. They spawned delays and delays could quickly segue into airport gridlock. Downstairs; approach controllers grew angry over having to work go-arounds back into an already tight arrival sequence. BJ's OJT reports told the story over and over again. By the time he was called in to have that "talk" with his Supervisor, he was about ready to call it quits anyway. The easy-going nature and good humor he'd been known for was gone and soon ~ so was Bobby Joe.

There was no loud keening from the union. Had he been certified, they would have had to work with, or more aptly, around him. This was a disturbing prospect. Everyone, including the PATCO faithful, understood one thing; when it came to Big Time's tower and TRACON, you had to either keep up or keep out. BJ offered neither excuses or accusations. The front office was mostly silent on the matter, although calls were being exchanged with those who could assist in placing BJ in a less active facility. The consensus was that he had given it his best shot. There was an adequate knowledge of what to do on Local Control but he simply couldn't do it with sufficient speed and competence to meet facility standards and expectations. It was a scenario that I saw repeated several times in the up and down world of Big Time Tower.

Trainees who made it to the radar room would find an atmosphere far less forgiving than tower operations; especially during IFR weather. The airport and our facility were, in fact, simply the vital components of a huge, self-perpetuating machine. Planes were delivered into one end, processed, then spit out the other end in a continuous cycle that should only have stopped when the machine ran out of planes. Any trainee who couldn't learn to make or fill gaps in the arrival sequence, adjust the spacing when demand required or maintain a steady departure flow would soon be, as my Air Force sergeant used to say, doing the "duffel bag drag." There were several examples. Gender or ethnicity issues got the ill-fated fledgling very little consideration. Looking good in a headset or tight fitting jeans got them none at all. It was simple. Everyone was expected to keep the machine running at full speed. It was a matter of pride.

When it became necessary, washing someone out of the training program back then was not seen as an act of aggression. It was cathartic. It was reassuring. It removed someone from an environment where they could not succeed and placed them in one where they stood a better chance.

Then came the strike and a subsequent scramble to hire, train and certify another generation of controllers. As time went by, training strategies and standards began to slip under the weight of increasing demand and user expectations. A culture of compromise began to grow among the weary workforce that had been holding things together since August of '81. "Good enough" became good enough. We began certifying people if they could simply demonstrate the necessary position knowledge and stay out of trouble. Nothing more. Within a year or two, these folks were starting to train even newer recruits and the decline in performance gathered momentum. We were like bartenders watering down our own drinks. The price was high. We'd created a morass of marginally capable controllers who sat like speed bumps in our road to system recovery.

By 1983, there was a fairly large population of 'Strike Babies' (those hired after August of 1981) in the facility and many were fully certified. By default, some of them would hold their trainees to the same "good enough" standards that they had been held to when they were trained. Let's face it; there were work schedules to fill. There were sectors, running combined since the strike, that needed to be staffed separately. Older journeymen longed for retirement while other, younger ones, looked forward to career progression. I was one of them. I'd had enough of Big Time and needed a new challenge. There were also the few acutely fatigued fellas who held themselves together with nothing more than long strings of profanity whenever control room pressure peaked. So any attempt to get rid of a trainee who clearly wasn't up for the task (like old BJ) would often be met with opposition.

Years passed. A new union formed and a new philosophy toward training was taking shape. Try to terminate training on a developmental and you learned several surprising facts. First; it was rarely ever the trainee's fault. It was more likely attributed to a series of unfair and inaccurate training reports. Or maybe the trainee was scheduled for OJT when traffic was either too heavy or too light for his or her capabilities. It could also have been a Supervisor or Manager who "had it in" for them and was trying to railroad them out of the facility. When all else failed, it might simply come down to incomplete or improperly completed training reports. The idea of moving incapable controllers to a place where they stood a better chance of succeeding was being replaced by the idea of training them for as long as it took to become "good enough."

The new reality was to eventually certify trainees - no matter what, let them season on the position when traffic wasn't too heavy, keep an eye on them and hope for the best. Of course this meant the heaviest pushes still had to be handled by our older, more experienced and more fatigued controllers. Many of them were well beyond their nineteenth nervous breakdown and some were about to spontaneously combust.

The world was changing. Most newly hired controllers were coming in with solid academic credentials while the pre-1981 recruits brought prior military ATC experience with them. Decisions, formerly guided by what was best for the system, were increasingly influenced by the course of least resistance. It wasn't simply an issue confined to the control rooms either. It seemed that everyone, from the regional office on down to the controller workforce, was passively complicit in this plunge toward mediocrity. We all shared in the responsibility for aviation safety and had, for whatever reason, tacitly condoned the new 'good enough' standards.

So I'll ask you; how is the next generation of controllers coming along? With a lot of pride in our ATC system still remaining, I am very curious. Has the FAA set its recruitment standards high enough to bring in only the most promising applicants? Will those involved in on-the-job training of our next generation apply the highest standards to that process? Will Management and the union support well founded and clearly documented recommendations by instructors and Supervisors to terminate training on those who don't meet those standards? Will our next generation continue to display the intangible earmarks that once identified our best controllers? Will they be able to cope with the many changes, known and unknown, coming at them? Will they be able to withstand the increasing pressure of inevitable air traffic increases? Does safety still come first? The answers may rest with our current generation but, again, I'm not qualified to say.

© NLA Factor, 2011