Op/Ed Columns Provide Opportunity to Defend Our Professionalism
Thursday, June 23, 2011

Our continuing media relations efforts to promote the great work of our members, educate the public about how the ATC system works and enhance our members' image as safety professionals has taken on many facets. One effective method we've undertaken is the placement of opinion/editorial columns authored by a NATCA facility representative. We had a great op/ed published by the Miami Herald in April (http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/05/08/2206755/why-fatigue-is-a-factor-in-the.html). Recently, we worked with our fac reps at IND, ZID and ZKC on similar op/ed columns and are attempting to have them published as well.

You can read both columns below:


Tornado Alley:  A day as an Air Traffic Controller at Kansas City Air Route Traffic Control Center

Most people have no idea what Air Traffic Controllers do every day and the stress that they work under while they are doing it. They may not know that during inclement weather such as the recent tornados and severe thunderstorms that hit the Joplin and Kansas City areas, Air Traffic Controllers are responsible for safely guiding aircraft around weather hazards and to their destinations, while separating them from each other.

Many people tune in to the weather channel during these storms and make plans for safety. I watch the weather and make note of the radar that tells me it’s going to be a busy night.  I have an evening shift and expect a lot of deviations around the thunderstorms, making my job particularly challenging.  I work in Olathe, Kansas, as an Air Traffic Controller at Kansas City ARTCC (ZKC).  ZKC is a 24-hour facility that overlies approach controls and towers in Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, and Illinois.  While most people think controllers work in towers or approach control facilities, ZKC employs approximately 240 air traffic controllers.

What is commonly known as “thunderstorm season” runs from approximately April to September.  As an Air Traffic Controller, this is our busiest season in the Midwest.  Aircraft cannot fly through thunderstorms due to the number of hazards, such as hail, icing, high winds, tornados, and lightning.  When Joplin got pounded by tornadic activity on May 22, 2011, controllers at ZKC were unaware of the damage being caused; we were doing what we always do: assisting aircraft in routing around the severe weather and separating them from each other. 

When I arrived to work that day, the line of storms was moving through the Kansas City area and we were already in holding for Kansas City (MCI). I was assigned the sector to the northeast of MCI, where the bulk of the storms were, and I had very little traffic.  My co-worker sitting at the sector to my right was talking rapidly as he worked the holding stack south of my sector, the only weather-clear area in the vicinity, and he vectored the overflights around the stack.  Mid-afternoon, a tornado warning was issued for our local area.  All controllers on break and non-essential personnel were sent to the basement until the threat was over.  A handful of controllers were left in the control room to continue working traffic. Then the sirens stopped, and everyone went back to work.

As the evening progressed, another area of “popcorn” storms appeared west of Hayes, Kansas.  The controller at that sector began to direct aircraft around the build-ups until the line filled in.  Then he asked for help and another controller joined him.  Together they worked to reroute everyone to the north or south of the rapidly building line of thunderstorms.  An hour later, things settled back into routine. The weather line is solid, and the traffic management unit organized a plan to get aircraft on efficient routes around the weather.

As is always the case in air travel, safety and reliability in the level of services are air traffic controller’s priorities, regardless of the weather.  Rain or shine, more than 15,000 controllers, in the United States, safely move nearly 2 million people daily. Our aviation system has never been safer. As a trained professional,  I work side by side with talented people and have the privilege of providing service to the flying public through professional civil and military pilots and a general aviation customer base that appreciate my service as much as I enjoy providing it.

-Dana Bain, ZKC Fac Rep


(note, we re-worked the lead after it became clear the op/ed would not be published before last month's Indianapolis 500):

Air Traffic Controllers: Working the 500 Long Before the Green Flag Drops

By Tom Thompson and Mark Wittmayer

By the time Mari Hulman George instructs the ladies and gentlemen to start their engines at the IMS, the over 400 air traffic controllers who work in Indianapolis will have already seen the green flag drop during what is annually one of our busiest weeks of the year.

Starting with time trial weekend and continuing through race week, the tens of thousands of visitors who arrive and depart from the greater Indianapolis area by aircraft will have received the highest quality safety service provided by local controllers. They work at both the Indianapolis International Airport control tower and radar facility, and the regional en route radar center – called “Indy Center”– that handles the airspace between Illinois and West Virginia. There are 15,500 air traffic controllers nationwide, safely handling 70,000 flights and moving more than 2 million passengers each day.

Traffic volume during this week rises 30 percent over normal levels. Everything from an increase of scheduled airline flights to move the tens of thousands of spectators to chartered flights to private aircraft creates challenges for controllers to safely separate and then sequence them for arrivals and departures to keep them running on time and without delays.

Indianapolis is no stranger to special events and the extra air traffic that comes with them. Beyond the 500, there’s the Brickyard 400, the Moto GP race, the annual Indianapolis Airshow and the regular hosting of the NCAA Final Four. Coming up (hopefully) is Super Bowl XLVI and we are already in full planning mode. All of our controllers will work hard to ensure traffic is handled safely.

Indy Center, Indy Tower and radar control are 24-hour operations, 365 days per year. Very similar to our interstate highway systems on the ground, we are the crossroads of America in the air as well. In addition to the large FedEx operation based in Indianapolis, midnight hours are extremely challenging due to the UPS operation based in Louisville – airspace over and around which Indy Center has control – and the numerous red-eye flights that traverse our airspace nightly.

Recent incidents that have brought negative attention to our profession have hit us like a punch in the gut. These isolated incidents are not who we are or what we are about. They do not reflect the safety record of our workforce and we are determined to work hard to solidify the public’s trust and confidence in us. While important issues like fatigue are being discussed and addressed at the national level, including improvements to our demanding schedules to allow for more rest, we are also recommitting ourselves to the professional standards that helped make U.S. airspace the safest in the world.

Just last month, the National Transportation Safety Board announced the overall safety of the system had improved in 2010, with zero fatal accidents recorded on commercial flights. According to a recent MIT study, you are safer riding on an airplane than riding an escalator.

Air traffic controllers are safety professionals who take very seriously the public safety service.  Next time you board a plane - whether it be to attend the 500 or Super Bowl, or just a business trip, know there are 15,000-plus air traffic controllers working for you from coast to coast - 24/7, 365 days a year - making sure you safely get to your destination and back home. It's what we do.

--Tom Thompson is the local chapter president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) at Indianapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center; Mark Wittmayer is the local NATCA chapter president at Indianapolis Tower and Terminal Radar Approach Control.