NATCA Addresses Current Issues at 2011 ATCA Conference
Friday, October 07, 2011

Jeff Richards, Chicago Center facility representative and member of the Article 55 Workgroup, joined three other esteemed panelists from the transportation industry on Tuesday to discuss how employees can mitigate fatigue while working long shifts in the darkness, often at odd hours. Alongside the moderator, Bloomberg News’ Alan Levin, Mr. Richards was joined by Alexis Brathwaite, the Trinidad-based President of the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers' Associations; Jim Dougherty, Chief Safety Officer for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority; and Dr. Deborah Gofreed, Director of Arlington (Va.) Sleep Medicine.  

Jeff Richards

Dr. Gofreed began the discussion with the startling statistic that nearly one in every four middle-aged men has sleep apnea. Mr. Richards said the condition may be “prevalent” among NATCA's members. With that in mind, Mr. Richards told the panel and audience about all NATCA has done to improve working conditions for its members, which in turn have made the skies safer. NATCA’s MOU with the Federal Aviation Administration includes a mandated nine-hour break before a controller’s third and fourth shifts of the week, along with allowing use of a personal radio at night, designed to create some ambient noise in the tower and to prevent a controller from dozing off. The agreement also forbids a controller from working more than 16 hours in any 24-hour period, and requires there to be at least two controllers on duty during overnight shifts. Mr. Richards described these new rules and recommendations as a "long term investment in resources and scientific analysis to see if fatigue mitigation efforts have worked."

While these mechanisms have been put into place to stop drowsiness, the panelists agreed it is not easy to label fatigue as a factor in various close calls over the years. Mr. Richards said, “It’s easy to say someone gave the wrong altitude and two planes got close, but was it fatigue? It’s hard to pinpoint fatigue as a main cause unless someone self-reports it or it is an obvious case.”

Following the panel on fatigue, NATCA president Paul Rinaldi discussed how his members would be able to adjust to the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) as it is implemented over the course of the next decade or so. As always, he was a fierce advocate for his union’s members, and challenged fellow panelist Mike Wambsganss’ assertions that the union may struggle to hire new people because NextGen has many manual components and isn’t “really technology” enough for the tastes of twenty-somethings. “We don’t have vehicles that drive themselves. This generation still drives its cars,” Mr. Rinaldi said. “Technology is going to enhance critical thinking and if we recruit and train the right people, this will be a career for them the same way it has been.”

Left to right: Robert Torn, Paul Rinaldi and Rick Ducharme

Moderator David Sweet, a corporate consultant and subject matter expert at Boeing, focused the conversation mainly on how the entire aviation industry would react to NextGen. He said the hardest adjustment during a major technical change is not the mechanics themselves, but how the people entrusted to use them react and adapt. Mr. Rinaldi expressed confidence that NextGen technologies, and whatever inevitably comes after that decades down the road, will enhance air traffic controllers’ productivity, not render it useless. He also pushed back against charges that the union would be against technological advancements that might put jobs in peril. He said advancements will make controllers’ jobs that much more necessary, because only the human element can adapt. “Technology needs to help us; it doesn’t need to do our jobs for us,” Mr. Rinaldi said. “Controllers love technology. We’re risk-adverse and when you’re sitting on that plane, you want us to be risk-adverse.” Sitting alongside Mr. Rinaldi, Mr. Wambsganss of Crown Consulting, and the moderator, Mr. Sweet, were Rick Ducharme, Deputy COO at the Federal Aviation Administration; Bruce Freedman, business program manager at SRA International; Robert Torn, chairman of the International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations; and Abe Zwany, a senior executive advisor at Booz Allen Hamilton.

On Wednesday (Oct. 5), NATCA Vice President Trish Gilbert participated  in a panel discussion on today’s National Airspace System (NAS) and what the industry’s future holds.

Each year, billions of dollars are spent to maintain and support ground-based infrastructure systems. The next step towards the future lies in the implementation of satellite surveillance and navigation systems, otherwise known as NextGen. The FAA's Elizabeth Ray moderated this topic of discussion, “How long should we maintain two NASs?” Participating panelists included Gilbert, Joe DeVito from JetBlue, Amr Elsawy from Noblis, Jack Kies from Metron Aviation, Steve Pennington from the Department of Defense, and Craig Spence from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. While many of the panelists voiced their own concerns, Gilbert highlighted air traffic controllers’ training methods, collaboration with the FAA and aviation industry cooperation.

When training procedures and new technology costs was addressed to Gilbert, she responded that testing aggressively from the beginning saves money in the long run. However, rapid implementation must come with proper training within the workforce to prepare them for the transition. A high number of air traffic controllers are relatively new and want more technology-based training methods.

“We only have about 15,000 air traffic controllers and about 4,000 have less than four years in the agency,” Gilbert said. “We are trying to work aggressively with the agency to make sure that we develop effective training.”

Kies shared his frustration with the many constraints that arise when working with the government. Gilbert quickly responded that finding mutual interests within the industry will strengthen the overall goal of safety and addressing those shared ideas to legislators will further that overall aviation initiative.

With talk of NextGen in the near future, Gilbert believes air traffic controllers are ready to embrace modernized technology.

“They have a unique insight into both the needs of the system and the functionality of the proposed changes, as well as the ability to identify flaws and make suggestions in development, particularly in the beginning stages,” Gilbert said.

The majority of the panelists agreed that collaboration among those in the aviation industry is necessary to maintain the safety and efficiency of the NAS. The question remains, can the aviation industry cooperate together to make NextGen a swift transition?