I normally try to stay away from politics, especially on the internet. I’ve lost quite enough hair, thank you very much. Unfortunately, H.R. 2997 definitely falls into that category. Could there be anything more political than a bill in the House of Representatives?
On the other hand, it’s definitely aviation-related. So I wrote, and that post (The Big Lie) has gained some traction among aviation alphabet groups and on social media. Not in the way a Trump tweet or a Twitter war between Kardashian and <insert pop star> might trend, of course. But among our small insular general aviation community, it was broadcast by AOPA, NBAA, EAA, Air Facts, and quite a few other notable names.
As a result, I was contacted by the National Business Aviation Association and asked to appear as a guest on their Flight Plan podcast. It was an opportunity to spread the word on a topic of great importance for general aviation, and quite entertaining for me personally because host Pete Combs sports what has got to be most distinctively radio-esque voice in the history of radio.
If you’re interested in hearing it, the interview is five minutes long. Even if you don’t want to hear me blather on about air traffic control privitization, at least listen to the intro and tell me I’m wrong about that voice:
Pete is also working on a new podcast with AIN Online called The Human Factor. If you enjoy Flying Magazine’s monthly “I Learned About Flying From That” column, you’ll like The Human Factor. It’s one of the more effective ways to teach: through direct example. “I screwed up. Here’s how.” And it comes right from the horse’s mouth.
I also appreciated the way he asks questions which take you beyond just the dry particulars and look deeper into the root causes of each incident. For example, Episode 3 deals with a fuel exhaustion incident. While the facts are simple enough, the interview segues into the larger issues of PIC responsibility, CRM, and confirmation bias in a well-scripted way.
It’s interesting how when we are students, we assume flying will somehow be “different” when we reach professional pilot status, yet in reality the exact same issues and challenges are present on every level. Human factors, indeed.
It’s nice to hear your voice after reading your words all this time.
Pete definitely has a radio voice. My first thought when I heard his voice was that he sounds a lot like the guy that voices the training material for CTS online aviation training. Imagine: “TCAS 7.1 implements the following changes…”
I will definitely add The Human Factor to my list of podcasts. That sounds like a valuable resource.
Oh man, the mention of CTS gave me the shivers. 🙂
Can’t get enough of your columns, Ron. They’re always interesting, educational, entertaining, well written, and thought-provoking. Keep ’em coming!
Thanks, Jan! Glad you found the post worthwhile.
Ok I will give you the fact that our our ATC system is better than it was in the ’60s but we are far behind the world when it comes to CPDLC, and other ATC services.
I don’t know if we are ahead or behind in terms of FANS 1/A type technology. I’m not even sure how one would factually evaluate a statement like that. Our ATC system is so much larger and more complex than anyone else’s that it would be hard to compare. For example, most other nations don’t have much, if any, general aviation activity.
Funny how all the articles against corporatization are by users, not the actual operators. I spent 31 years in four ATC facilities and was constantly using equipment that was so antiquated, the techs couldn’t get replacement parts unless they came from the depot after another facility upgraded. When tracking automation upgraded from reel-to-reel tape to computers, we got 286-based systems while the general public had 586-based in their homes. We built a brand new control tower and was promised STARS during the planning, then changed to ARTS with refurbished 1970’s era radar scopes which actually cost more than the STARS system. We opened the new tower in 2007 and just last year, the facility finally got STARS with digital scopes. The only reason the facility finally got it was it was needed to interface with NEXGEN. During my career, no project came in on time or under budget and many projects were stopped along the way with cost overruns or new technology that made the old project moot. I spent days reworking schedules under the assumption that furloughs were necessary due to not having a new budget, only to be told a day before implementation that we were considered essential safety personnel and would not be furloughed. Why would recent FAA COO’s recommend the change to get the ATC function out from under Congress if it would affect safety? All the alphabet groups are only opposing this to save their free ride in the system. And yes, I am a private pilot that operates in the system, so don’t tell me I have no skin in the game any more.
Thanks for your perspective. It’s good to hear from people “in the trenches” so to speak.
Whether you are for or against privatization, your examples mention a series of upgrades over the years which reinforce my point: ATC is not stuck in the 1960s. One could even argue that the latest and greatest technology would not serve you well as a controller for the same reason it wouldn’t serve me well as a pilot. The Gulfstream I fly was built in 2003 and has flight management systems — the “brains” of the aircraft — which are powered by 80286 processors. I’ve written previously about how even the space shuttle had derivatives of the original Apollo-era computers on board. Couldn’t NASA have afforded something more modern? Sure. But if the equipment you’ve got is proven and does the job, why take the risk of upgrading critical systems which already get the job done?
You mentioned how techs couldn’t get replacement parts. Again, I don’t see that as necessarily indicative of poor design or implementation. Since there was no such things as COTS technology in use back then, everything was bespoke and they probably only manufactured enough equipment to fill the original order.
Your comments about furloughs and budget issues? That’s definitely a problem, and one that privatization wouldn’t necessarily solve. The proper answer is for Congress to do it’s job of passing a budget rather than kicking the can down the road. Blaming the ATC system for Washington’s inability to secure long term budgeting is, it seems to me, a non sequitur. I can understand why the FAA’s COO would have recommended privatization: as Deep Throat famously said, just follow the money. The COO isn’t concerned with the health of the GA industry over the long term, he’s just trying to keep the bill paid for the current fiscal year.
Ron, the whole point of my rant is that the FAA has always been penny-wise and pound-foolish because Congress cannot give them long-term funding. Thus the lack of current technology, buying systems that are so proprietary that parts are limited which limits the useful life, and mishandling personnel multiple times due to lack of continuing resolutions, let alone a real budget. The only course of action, since Congress can’t pass anything but gas, is to get ATC out from under their thumb. If you can solve the Congressional problem, then there’s hope for ATC having the proper tools in the proper time frame. Would you settle for not being able to shoot ILS approaches in your Gulfstream due to lack of parts availability for your nav unit? I doubt it.
As a user during the eclipse I can testify ATC was overwhelmed right at a critical moment where it was most needed. Hundreds of small planes took to the air amid partial obscurations from the fires raging to the West of the main sites where people traveled to witness the totality and all that ATC could say is “unable” to any VFR following. Basically everyone was left on their own and they couldn’t even pickup some IFR clearances. Oakland center was off limits entirely to any VFR following while the others could take in a few at a time. Some upgrades are definitely needed. It was a miracle there were no mid airs that day.
I think the eclipse represents a black swan type event, for lack of a better phrase, not something that happens every day. Or even every year. Building a system for such an event is probably not practical. For 99.9% of the time, the current system seems to do the job for which it was intended and designed with admirable efficiency and safety.
While I do support privatization of ATC, not in the manner congress is doing. FAA sets the standards for flight attendants but it is up to the employer to train them. FAA sets the standards for pilots but it is up to the employer to train them. So why are most traffic control towers staffed by federal employees? If an airport wants a tower let them pay for the tower operators as well. Ditto for most ATCs. I can see an exception for a center that covers multiple states. But ATC dedicated to a single airport (or an airport in a family) should not be paid for by the federal tax payers.
I’m not sure the comparison is apples-to-apples. The FAA sets the standards so that they’re uniform across the entire industry, and also to ensure a minimum level of safety for the protection of the public. Pilots and flight attendants, on the other hand, are trained by the employer because a) they’re earning money for that entity, b) there are company specific rules and procedures which vary from employer to employer, and c) the FAA doesn’t have the resources to train them even if they wanted to. In the case of business aviation, there are multiple vendors to whom the employer can farm out the training (CAE, FlightSafety, etc), and they get to make that call since they’re footing the bill.
As it regards air traffic control towers, I don’t think they’re placed at an airport because the airport *wants* them, but because the traffic level has reached a threshold which dictates that the are supposed to have one. Likewise, if the traffic at an airport falls below a certain point or the airport loses their airline service, the tower can be shut down by the FAA since it’s no longer necessary.
I’m not aware of an ARTCC which does not span multiple states.