Moving Controllers Won’t Work

With federal government budget cuts looming on Friday many pilots wonder why the FAA doesn’t just move controllers around to fill in for gaps left by inevitable furloughs. It seems logical that the FAA could close the least used towers and move those controllers to the really busy centers, approach control facilities and towers. But it doesn’t work that way.

The FAA really emphasizes the importance of time in type experience for pilots, but when it comes to controllers, the agency is downright anal on the issue. When it comes to air traffic control, time in position is mandatory.

The ATC system operates at the national level, but is really divided up into 20 centers that are contained within regions of the FAA. There used to be eight regions, but I’ve lost track as at least a couple have merged, sort of.

A center owns the airspace within its boundaries. The center then delegates authority over certain lower level airspace to approach control facilities and control towers. And centers work out agreements with the centers on their boundaries. The agreements detail routes, fixes and altitudes for airplanes transitioning from one center’s airspace into another.

Within a center there are sectors that individual controllers manage. The sectors are divided up laterally and vertically. The same airspace may be sliced into low, high and super high sectors with a controller in command of each chunk. When traffic is heavy all sectors are manned. During periods of lighter traffic several sectors can be combined under a single controller.

If this sounds like a history of the Balkans, you’re right. And like those feuding countries in Europe, people don’t move easily across borders in the FAA either.

The reason controller mobility is so difficult is that each controller must qualify in a position through a lengthy training process. No matter how much total experience a controller may have, he or she is not qualified to take command of a new sector or tower position without being trained by another controller who is fully qualified in that position.

Controllers are hired initially by a center and sent to the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City. The washout rate used to be very high at the Academy but in recent years the FAA only hires people with military controller experience, or those who have graduated from a few college ATC programs approved by the FAA.

After the Academy a new controller returns to the center or a facility within the center to begin the long process of qualifying on a position. There are many hours working in simulation, and more hours plugged in and working with a fully qualified controller. When we’re flying it’s not unusual to hear another voice break in with a change in a clearance or instruction you have just been given. That’s almost always the fully qualified controller helping out the trainee.

Eventually controllers are certified at several positions in their facility. Some may only work a VFR tower where the positions are ground and local control. At other combined facilities controllers work both the tower cab positions and rotate down to the radar room to work approach and departure. Center controllers never get to look outside but they rotate among several sectors within the center as they qualify.

At one time to qualify a controller would have to draw, from memory, the complete airspace of a sector, including every airway, intersection, approach procedure and the minimum altitudes for everywhere. That’s no longer the absolute standard, but knowledge of every airspace detail is still necessary to qualify.

So, if the FAA closes a lower traffic tower or facility to meet the required budget cuts those controllers aren’t going to be of use to the busier facility for a long time to come. It would take many, many months to certify controllers at new positions, and some may not be able to make the switch from tower cab to radar in any case. It would be like an airline or flight department buying an entirely new fleet of airplanes all at once and expecting the same pilots to fly the new types the next day, or next week.

If sequestration happens on Friday, and the FAA furloughs controllers, there will be no quick fix by moving controllers around to fill in the gaps. It will be much like the many months after the controller strike and firings in 1981where it took several years to get the system back up to full speed. I lived through those post-strike days waiting on the phone to get a GAR (general aviation reservation)—or trying to—for every flight, often being delayed and not having the same flexibility in altitudes and routing. The aftermath of the controller strike and firings helped push general aviation deeper into a recession that had started just before the strike. I hope I never have to fly through that again.

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32 Responses to Moving Controllers Won’t Work

  1. David says:

    Sorry to be dense, but why are the furloughs inevitable? Why not click some NexGen stuff down the road a bit? My impression is that NexGen is massively expensive. But what do I know!

  2. Stu Baxter says:

    There are plenty of things in this horribly bloated agency that can be slowed down or eliminated without giving controllers time off. The question is there anyone in government capable of making the kind of decisions that we have to make every day in the private sector? My experience with the FAA is probably not.

  3. Kayak Jack says:

    Switching gears a bit, how will the contractor weather briefings be affected?

  4. Mac says:

    That’s a good question, Jack, for which there are no answers. You can be sure that EAA and the other general aviation associations are working hard to be sure that FAA services that directly affect safety–such as weather briefings–are not cut.
    Mac Mc

  5. Marc Rodstein says:

    You don’t need to move controllers to keep the busiest towers working. Just don’t furlough the busy controllers. Furlough the bored ones that are having trouble staying awake due to little or no traffic on the graveyard shift.

    Does anybody in Washington have a brain?

  6. Mac says:

    Don’t forget, Marc, the controlles have a union and senority rules. Of course, you can say toss out all of the agreements and just make those controllers who are left work, and work really hard. We have seen that movie before. If controllers start to follow the FAA’s own rules and procedures to the letter traffic grinds to a halt.
    Mac Mc

    • John says:

      Then change the rules and procedures. You can’t let the kids rule the household Mac. There is going to be pain, let’s take it now before things get worse.

  7. Luke says:

    Keep in mind, we’re talking about cutting $600M from a $7B budget — that’s about 8.5% of the total, or about 22% of the agency’s $2.7B supplies and travel budget. Put another way, the FAA’s 2013 budget would still be $500M higher than its 2008 budget (in real dollars).

    So it seems like, not only is there plenty of money in the FAA budget to absorb the hit, but these funding levels have plenty of precedent in recent history.

  8. David says:

    Mac, do you have any sense of how much discretion the FAA has on where they make cuts? Do you feel it’s cynical to think that the FAA is purposefully making cuts that are calculated to cause maximum pain for the public, with the objective of preserving their slice of the pie?

    I’m still hung up on the “inevitable” nature of these furloughs … maybe I’m just naive.

  9. Rodney says:

    The doom and gloom projections are just political theatre. If anyone in the government was so inclined they could easily absorb these cuts without cutting services or furloughs. Restrict travel to absolute necessity, videoconference instead. Slow down Nex Gen. Shut down the slowest towers and transfer those people to busier more productive towers so you pay less overtime. Stop the 3rd class medical and all the paperwork it involves, that should save a bunch. However no common sense approach creates the drama politicians thrive on so they can ride to the rescue at the last minute.

  10. Mac says:

    The guidelines for cuts are that they be across the board, so what does that mean? Who knows? My guess is that it is GA that will suffer in this in order to keep the airlines and public moving as normally as possible. But ATC is the largest single expense category for the FAA so if cuts are to be even a little bit uniform controllers will need to be furloughed.
    Mac Mc

    • John Hunt says:

      Part of the issue that many , including a much televised R Gov. seem to miss. The law was moving funds to avoid pain.

  11. Marc Rodstein says:

    Well if they close a few GA towers I won’t consider that suffering. There are many of them that should not be towered anyway, in my opinion. Example in point: KBOW where the tower has been closed for the past 6 months with no adverse effect that I can see on anybody. They have very little traffic and function just fine without a tower. There are many like this around America. A lot of these towers are there so that the politicians can claim they are “providing safety” for their constituents who don’t understand aviation and can’t believe that an airport can be safe without a tower.

  12. Stu Baxter says:

    “If you don’t pass this school referendum we are going to eliminate sports and music.”
    Does that sound familiar? Bring it on.

  13. Daniel Feldman says:

    Every government agency is screaming doom and gloom, the FAA is no different. We either come to the day of reckoning now or in a bigger way down the road. I would just as soon take it now.

    If you look at almost any report on government waste you begin to realize that almost any budget you pull can be cut to minimize the impact of any of the sequester. The government will just have to start doing what most of us have had to do in our own households and businesses for the last 4-5 years. The only real question is will they be smart about it or try and make a statement by cutting in such a way that it impacts day to day operations to try and force their budgets to be returned to their former levels.

  14. Dave says:

    After 31 years in the FAA, with time in center, FSS and tower, I am so glad I’m not having to make up ANOTHER furlough schedule, only to see it be thrown out the window. You all are very astute that it’s political theater, as the administrators portend doom and gloom. The agency has the ability to absorb the cuts with little fanfare. Even if it comes down to furlough, in most facilities that just means controllers will work longer between breaks and some senior controllers may not be able to fully use their “use or lose” annual leave. Life will go on regardless, it’s time to get our financial house in order and the dolts in DC are only exacerbating the problem.

  15. Loren says:

    First off, Mac, you provided a very good description of how the ATC airspace and how the controllers operate….. and have for decades. In my experience working the three or four sectors in Denver Center back in 1968-1973 (all shifts, DD, SS, M each week), I had many periods of boredom with almost no traffic. On midnight shifts most sectors were vertically combined. As others have commented, there are numerous GA airports with no towers, and quite a few that wouldn’t need midnight coverage at all.
    As I’ve heard recently, the sequestration actually means only 2.5% overall budget reduction, which I believe would be hardly noticeable in our IFR ATC system.
    Furthermore, controller salaries have escalated from the $600/mo I started with to over $10k/mo for today’s journeyman controllers (with their union influence of course). Think there might be just a bit of room for belt tightening?

  16. Tom says:

    Does a controller get to pick where and what job he does? Do they bid on it?

    For example, if someone only ever wanted to work in the tower of their home airport, could they apply for that job?

    Further example, what if I don’t want to be stationed in Alaska?

    • Loren says:

      It has been a long time since my ATC experience, I can’t say if the FAA’s policies have changed, but I’d expect that a controller could bid on a location for reassignment, however the needs of the FAA would take precedence, I’m sure. And as Tom said, moving to any other ATC facility would require months and months of familiarization and training. I remember memorizing every detail of the Center’s (where I was working) high and low IFR charts and drawing them from memory on a large blank sheet of paper. That included nav identifiers, mileages, MEA’s, MOCA’s and frequencies. Of course, I’ve long forgotten that. :-)

    • Dave says:

      When you apply to the FAA, you pick tower or center as first choice, then up to three regions where you’d consider being assigned. After you’ve passed the screening at Oklahoma City, then you’re assigned to facilities that need controllers. Usually the controllers that scored the best at the academy are assigned the toughest facilities. If they have a choice of facilities as you’re being assigned, they may ask you which one you prefer. Once you’re assigned, you may be able to make a trade with others, with permission. Otherwise, go where you’re assigned, get checked out and then watch for openings at facilities where you want to transfer. There was much more moving around in the ’70′s and ’80′s, then move money got tight and it was a lot harder to end up where you wanted.

  17. Mac says:

    Controllers can bid for open positions. However, they must qualify for the position. For example, a person simply may not have what it takes to be a center controller but could do just fine in a tower cab. Pay scales are also matched to the traffic level of a facility and the positions and tenure in that facility. So controllers do have choices.
    Mac Mc

  18. Kayak Jack says:

    They can easily cut the controllers who handle the president’s vacation aircraft, couldn’t they? That is, if he quit taking vacations for a week or two.

  19. Don R. Bush says:

    C’mon we all know there’s plenty of fat to cut at the top of every branch of this bloated gov’mt just no intestinal fortitude to go there. The problem is least with the little guys whose departure WILL affect safety the most. Also, with a little common sense (remember that?) we could eliminate entire branches that wouldn’t affect public safety at all. Political correctness just dictates too many sacred cows.

    • Stu Baxter says:

      You mean something like blow up the whole aeromedical department? Since it accomplishes nothing, all of the airlines fly with two people with presumably competent there is no risk there and the rest of us undergo a worthless waste of our and the FAA time. Just do away with it.

  20. Tom says:

    Eliminate the TSA and go back to 2000 with private security. Install small baseball bats in the seat of each occupant to be used in any situation where non-sense is occurring or about to be occurring on an airplane. Poke a hole in this theory.

  21. John says:

    This is not about saftey or controllers buracrates could care less. This is about people using thier power to adversly effect others so that thier own position is a stronger one. So I have zero doubt that controllers will be furloughed because that will cause the most pain to the greatest number of people. With 100 dollar user fees proposed you can see where this is going.

  22. Ol Hank says:

    I’ve been retired from ATC for several years, but if you listen to many controllers from different facilities they’re going to welcome a day off … many (most) of the IFR controllers are apparently still working required six-day weeks. Our local tower is supposed to have 23 controllers NOT counting supervisors and the last I heard about one month ago, they had 12 and all are on 6-day weeks.

  23. Douglas Manuel says:

    I suspect moving controllers around would not help save much money. With relocation and per diem totaled up, they may actually be worse off financially. Then there are the enevitable hard feelings of those personally affected (directly and indirectly). Didn’t I see a study that contract towers were as safe or safer than FAA facilities, but cheaper to operate? Perhaps it makes monetary sense to replace FAA operations with contract services.

  24. John J Glennon says:

    Really and truly, who cares? These people work less than you ever did, get paid more than almost everybody in the country, and have a superb government retirement program. I don’t remember any air traffic controllers wringing their hands and getting teary-eyed when the rest of aviation lost retirement programs and huge chunks of pay. This is not the controller’s strike… it’s a temporary blip affecting a minority of the agency and is probably long overdue in a bureaucracy as fat and bloated as ATC.
    Flame on.
    JJ

  25. Boo Baker says:

    20 year retired military controller with offer letter to work at a center. why can’t the faa just pay controllers less. i understand the union and all that stuff, but i would prefer that to closing towers. i have a lot of friends that work for midwest and rva that are losing their jobs because of this. level 11 facility controllers make roughly $112,000 – $132,000 a year and level 12 facility controllers make $120,000 – $140,000 a year when certified. 30 year retired faa controllers are getting over $100,000 a year in retirement. do i want to make that kind of money? of course, but not at the expense for my friends losing their jobs. they should get paid well for what they do, but not that kind of cash. why not contract more to midwest and rva. the controllers that work for them get a third less pay, manage the traffic with half the staff, and 401k’s vice non pay into retirement plan. i assume i am way off the mark with my thoughts though. guess i need to look at who calling the shots. people who think that “we the people” need to fix a problem they made and not make any of the sacrifices. i would think that we are all in this together and all of us make sacrifices to fix this issue especially when they are the ones who put us here. i am ok with letting go that they put us here and saying what is done is done and fix the problem. as long as we fix it. all of us. this is the “united” states of america. it takes all of us to make it a great place to live, not just the ones that want to earn what they have while others just sit back and take 3 and 4 day weekends all the time, vacations on the taxpayers dime, and cut the countries jobs and salaries while theirs is protected. we need leaders leading this country not leaches and criminals.

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