Another Groove

The Eighties were finally coming to an end. By now, I felt like a projectile that had been fired through the entire decade at 365 days per second. The Nineties lay just ahead and I knew I was going to miss my mark unless I changed course. Time was moving on quickly and taking all the opportunities I ever dreamed of along for the ride. I felt a nagging sense of urgency ~ a need to catch up before being left behind. In haste, I threw all my career aspirations into a knapsack, ran along side and jumped on board. What this air traffic controller saw in the next ten years would eventually have me wishing I'd listened more closely to Timothy Leary, who said; "If you don't like what you're doing, you can always pick up your needle and move to another groove." I did stop liking what I was doing and came to realize it was time to find a new groove. But it would take time.    

I knew my career progression wasn't particularly linear. Rather than climbing a series of rungs on the ladder, my advancement appeared to be taking me upward but, at the same time, in circles. It was actually more like climbing a spiral staircase. I advanced upward but in continuous arcs, where every 180 degrees of travel had me heading back in the direction I'd just come from.

Sometimes though, I did seem to be putting distance between myself and the front line air traffic operation I still thought of as home. During those times, I felt myself becoming ineluctably absorbed into the cult of management. Those were the days when my old controller comrades would simply look on, shaking their heads at the mention of my name, while murmuring about how "another one" sold his soul for a desk and a title.

Then there were the times I'd seek refuge in that "home" environment where I was always most comfortable. Sadly though, It's true what Thomas Wolfe said. "You can't go home again." Giving up my headset meant I could no longer talk to pilots the way I used to. It also meant I couldn't talk to controllers the way I used to either. There was a "stuck mike" effect where I could hear them but they couldn't hear me. To the controllers though, the effect was just the opposite. In such situations, the usual outcome is that each side eventually tunes the other one out altogether.

One of my stops along the way around was one facility's Plans and Procedures Office, where I served as Manager for a few awkward, baffling and challenging years (I'll just call that the "ABCs of management"). Still well connected to my tenacious controller roots, I hadn't yet developed the casual indifference typical of a professional staff functionary. The control room environment still energized me. Whenever my office window rattled with the roar of a departing heavy jet I'd usually jump up and look. I guess I couldn't (or wouldn't) break free of those damned roots. Nonetheless, I was expected to assume my new role, memorize a lot of unfamiliar lines and act the part.

One way that every Manager acted out their role was in a power play known as the meeting. With its diverse cast of characters, diverging interests, digressions and duplicities; the meeting could shift quickly from drama to comedy or even tragedy before finally being declared a farce. Important discussions and negotiations routinely took place between people who knew little or nothing about their adversary's area of expertise. Trust was always essential but usually foolish. The hidden agenda was a competitive sport.
It took time but I eventually realized the way for me to partially overcome this conundrum was simply by not limiting my contact with the other players to the narrow scope of a meeting. I engaged them at every opportunity and without an agenda (hidden or otherwise). From this, I gained a little understanding of their world and a lot of respect for their place in it. Once mutual respect was established? Well, it became a lot easier to build a sphere of trust around some very disparate organizations.

Building that mutual respect wasn't easy and it not always possible. It required an openness with others that many of my management colleagues weren't very comfortable with. Sadly but not surprisingly, gaining the trust of people in other offices and organizations would eventually cost me the trust of some folks within my own. The funny thing was; I could see this happening over time but didn't really care. I pushed on, doing what I believed was the right thing.

Some people were easier to work with than others. From the various airline and other aviation advocates, to the many offices of our local airport authority ~ meetings with those folks were normally cordial, constructive and enlightening. Generally speaking, they were an honorable bunch; knowledgeable, open and eager to share. Our own Airway Facilities (AF) Office was a prime example. Here were the people who serviced and certified nearly every piece of equipment we relied on. They took a lot of pride and care in their work; knowing that a sudden outage could bring air traffic to a halt or worse. A few controllers might end up soiling themselves.

Meeting with AF meant there'd be no hidden agenda. An issue was simply placed on the table for all to dissect. It could have been the scheduling of a required radar shutdown for maintenance, the installation of new equipment in the tower cab or any number of other issues adversely affecting ATC operations. Requirements, needs and impacts were discussed and agreements were eventually extracted ~ just like painless dentistry.

Sitting down with folks from the local airport authority was equally satisfying. These were usually large meetings, including individual airline representatives, general aviation advocates, fixed base operators and maybe even the military. Topics ranged from relatively minor airfield activity to long-term projects of epic proportions. We talked of snow removal plans, runway or taxiway closures, lighting repairs, grass cutting around movement areas and everything else needed to keep the place running. Everyone had a chance to articulate their concerns and provide input. I always left such meetings completely satisfied, if not happy. All my questions were answered and I was sometimes even able to influence the scheduling of certain work that would seriously impact air traffic.

Meetings that included other FAA offices, such as adjacent air traffic facilities, were usually a different story. They could be a kind of "rehab session" for the habitually well intended and trusting. This was where participants could relearn or reinforce their skills in deception, parochial position taking, posturing and plain old back-stabbing. It was all in good fun, of course. After all ~ humiliating, devaluing and disappointing one's adversaries at the meeting, while asserting one's own authority or facility sovereignty, was a time-honored tradition.

If the agenda included proposed interfacility airspace and/or procedural changes, you could bet the meeting would be contentious and likely to attract the Region's scrutiny. Such meetings typically included both staff and controller representation from each facility. Since controllers and management nearly always viewed operational matters differently, just gaining consensus among our own facility's negotiators could be hard. Nobody wanted to change or give up anything, unless doing so would solve at least one of their own problems or get them something in return. Nobody wanted to take on additional duties and responsibilities unless they were accompanied by some kind of "dowry" ~ usually in the form of increased staffing and/or added equipment. The Region's solution would be simpler, more imaginative and far more cost-effective. Their guidance? Do something and make it work with existing resources. Somehow, we never thought of that ourselves.

This brand of meeting made it obvious that some issues simply could never be settled locally. Faced with having to resolve dicey and disputable subjects, each facility's ideological walls were often raised and ringed with parapets. Drawbridges were pulled up and the moats were mined. They became fortresses; fending off change and vilifying its agents. Participation in these meetings should have entitled attendees to combat pay. I'd usually find myself in the middle of long and loud arguments, wishing I was back in the TRACON vectoring airplanes. The "alphabet groups" (ATA, AOPA, NBAA, etc.) would sit, metaphorically, on the sidelines ~ watching the battle while hoping for a profitable outcome. If they observed too much wheel-spinning, head-butting or a simple efficacy deficit; they might play a card that none of us had in our hands. It was a trump card, played judiciously and very effectively. They could go over our heads.

Those alphabet aviation advocates could pick up a phone and make their case directly to our Division Manager, Regional Administrator or even the top guy at 800 Independence Avenue. This card was played only when the stakes were high enough to warrant such a brash move. Shortly thereafter, we'd all receive some help and inspiration from our Regional Office. Depending on how highly visible or politically charged an issue was, the Region would send either a specialist or a particular Branch Manager. More often than not, whoever showed up would eventually side with whichever Facility's Manager had the most influence. Back then, you see, facilities were fiefdoms and their managers were lords. But as supreme arbiters, the Region's decision was sacrosanct. Really though. Could there have been anyone any further from the problem, in either proximity or perspicacity, with the power to impose a solution? Doubtful. On the other hand; there really were legitimate problems on the table, shrouded by a lot of saber rattling and rhetoric, and we seemed unable to solve them on our own, so....
By far, the most perilous of meetings were between Regional and facility management. These were, at their essence, akin to living with Lizzie Borden. You never knew who was going to get whacked or why. If the Division Manager showed up for a meeting, it was probably to either give someone an award or take someone's head. With luck, it wouldn't be yours. Once the deed was done and word got out, everyone would feign surprise and disbelief, then agree the victim had it coming.

These were strange days ~ a learning experience I suppose. Rife with ritual, arcane complexities and nuance, they're hard for me to describe. I guess you had to be there. Perhaps you were. If not, just be glad. I did have to be there. It was the path I chose and I followed it until I began to feel lost. I was an air traffic controller in an unfamiliar place far from home. In the long run I would come to realize it was time to pick up my needle and "move to another groove."

© NLA Factor, 2011


Anonymous said...

When I was an ARTCC procedures specialist, we would occasionally have to call the RO procedures people for an "interpretation" of something or other. Two of the specialists were from other centers, and one had come from FSS to a tiny tower to the procedures office. In other words, he was totally clueless about 95% of ATC issues. We quickly learned that if he answered the office phone, the best thing to do was hang up. If you were dumb enough to ask him any questions, you were forever stuck with the (inevitably hopelessly wrong) answers because "The Region" had spoken.

I'm sure he went off to manage some hapless facility somewhere after that reign of havoc...

Quite right about interfacility meetings. First, defend your turf. Second, everything else.

Scary and dumb.

No Longer a Factor said...

Thanks for writing. Your comments gave me flashbacks about The Region’s interpretation of various paragraphs in the “point sixty-five.” We’d call the R.O. too, usually at the request of the union or a supervisor. It didn’t take long to learn that if we didn’t like the answer, we shouldn’t have asked the question. As you know though, once the Region ruled on something, we were bound by their interpretation. Memos would have to be written and briefings scheduled. I must say though; sometimes the R.O. was right. Unfortunately, that could mean we’d have to stop doing something that had been working well for years. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot!

Far more disturbing to me was the larger issue of how our Region (maybe all of them) groomed people for upper management. Anyone willing to go there for a year or two (it was a wretched place at the time) was pretty much guaranteed a position in facility management somewhere. It was difficult, if not impossible, to be selected for a Facility Manager or Asst. Manager vacancy unless you’d done your time at the R.O. This made for a very shallow talent pool.

To be fair; there were some talented specialists in our Regional Office. I worked with them often and we got a lot done. But some Branch Offices were known for their habit of bringing in a naïve, under-experienced and overly ambitious chump from a small facility, then nursing him or her along for a few years. Next, they’d convince (sorry, I always misspell “coerce”) some poor selecting official in a large facility that “This is your guy for the job!” Although well intended, what they were really doing was setting this individual up for failure.

In my time, I saw several first and second line supervisors and a few staff officers who would have been excellent Facility Managers without ever setting foot into the R.O. That was never going to happen though.

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. Have a safe and happy holiday season!

NLA Factor

Anonymous said...

I've recently learned of your blog and have enjoyed reading through all the entries. Keep up the good work!

Vannevar said...

Excellent. True.

No Longer a Factor said...

Thanks to "Anonymous" for your perseverance. Here's hoping that reading through it all didn't make you too thirsty! Thanks for doing it though.

To Vannevar, I truly appreciate the compliment. As an occasional Flâneur myself, I appreciate your taking the time to stroll through and observe my Blog when there are so many other places to go. Thanks for the support!

Cheers All,
NLA Factor

OldRetiredDude said...

As a former union rep your and career controller your blog brought back a lot of good and a few bad memories! Thanks.

No Longer a Factor said...

Thanks for writing, you Old Retired Dude! Looking back on a long career, the bad memories don't seem nearly as bad to me as they once did. We learn from it all and that's a good thing. Representing your coworkers is a good thing and being a career controller? It doesn't get any better. Congrats on your retirement and thanks for writing!

NLA Factor