NATCA President Patrick Forrey Delivers Speech to Aero Club of Washington - (3/26/2008)
PATRICK FORREY, PRESIDENT
NATIONAL AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLERS ASSOCIATION
MONTHLY MEETING OF THE AERO CLUB OF WASHINGTON
MARCH 26, 2008
Thank you, Susan, for that very warm and gracious welcome. Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, friends and colleagues, and thank you so much for coming today and for giving me this great opportunity to talk with you.
It’s an honor and a privilege to stand at this podium, where the leaders of our aviation community have come to report on the view from their respective corners of the United States National Airspace System.
I am here today representing 19,000 safety professionals in 16 different bargaining units within NATCA, which this year will celebrate its 21st anniversary.
In addition to the 11,000 certified professional air traffic controllers and 3,700 controller trainees in the FAA, NATCA represent controllers at 55 Federal Contract towers nationwide.
We also represent engineers, architects, traffic management coordinators, staff specialists, aircraft certification personnel and aerospace medicine employees.
The ATC system is entering the most active period on the calendar – summer travel and convective weather. And NATCA is also about to host two very special events on its calendar that best express our commitment to aviation safety.
Next week in Chicago is our annual Communicating for Safety conference, where we bring together controllers and pilots, both private and commercial, to discuss the myriad of issues in which collaboration and communication is crucial to safe flight.
We will have panels on pilot and controller training, reports on recent accident investigations, human factors study results, NASA ASRS updates, discuss dispatcher responsibilities, flight planning and special-use airspace considerations.
We will also be presenting 12 outstanding air traffic controllers with our fourth annual Archie League Medal of Safety award.
Named for the first air traffic controller, this award honors the past year’s finest displays of controller skill and determination, to ensure safe outcomes to challenging and critical situations.
For example, we will be honoring Lee Wheeler from Salt Lake Center, who alertly recognized that an arriving Northwest Airlines flight holding near Bozeman, Montana, due to poor weather, had veered more than 30 miles off course in an area with high terrain.
Wheeler canceled the flight’s non-radar approach, and relayed immediate climb instructions to the pilot through a Bozeman tower controller.
In Detroit, there is the story of Patrick Eberhart. He relied on a no-gyro vectors procedure that he hadn’t used at Detroit TRACON in 10 years, because he trusted his experience and his knowledge of the Pontiac area. He safely vectored a Beech Bonanza with instrument problems and low fuel to a safe landing.
The pilot wrote a thank-you note stating quote, “Our lives were in his hands. He could tell from my voice that it was of vital importance to be expeditious and accurate.”
And in Terre Haute, Indiana, 23-year veteran controller James Kmetz, came to the rescue of an older couple aboard a Cessna 182, which reported icing and had trouble locating the airport.
Kmetz calmly provided vectors to multiple ILS approach attempts, and called out warning altitudes, as he guided the pilot over landmarks and obstacles he knew by heart.
After a rough, but safe landing, the pilot’s wife remarked to a police officer, “At one point, I thought we were goners.”
These controllers all came to work those days not knowing they would save lives, but they were prepared for anything. And they will be the first to tell you they don’t believe they did anything special, that they were just doing their jobs.
But I will tell you that their work was extraordinary.
And regrettably, I must also tell you that we are rapidly losing too many of these most experienced controllers, along with too many of our brightest, newest young trainees.
Former FAA Administrator Marion Blakey last year supported a rise in pilots’ mandatory retirement age. She said, quote, “Experience counts. It’s an added margin of safety, and at the end of the day, that is what counts.” End quote.
I agree, which is why the FAA’s continued efforts to push out experienced controllers in favor of low paid new hires is very troubling to me; and should be for all of you.
It leaves an impression that cost cutting trumps a proven way of ensuring the highest margin of safety.
I'm not sure if you all know this, but America's air traffic controllers have an ongoing contract dispute with the FAA.
I'm sure you've heard all the arguments from both sides, and most, if not all of you, would rather stay out of this fight. But I’m here to tell you, that you need this war to end.
Let me be clear. I want this war to end too and I have been working non-stop toward that goal.
America's air transportation network is, to use an overused phrase, at a crossroads.
The FAA estimates that annual passenger levels will exceed one billion by 2016. But NextGen's most important component won't be here until 2020.
And today, 12 years out from the full implementation of ADS-B, delays have grown worse each of the past two years while our controller workforce is depleted.
Air traffic controllers have been working under the FAA’s imposed work rules for 570 days, 13 hours and 15 minutes. Yes, we do keep an official count-up clock.
And no, we will never forget that the FAA abandoned a fair collective bargaining process, and tore apart the already tenuous relationship it had with its controller workforce.
This is the open, bleeding wound we are desperately trying to repair, for the sake of the safety and stability of the system. But, we are faced with an employer chasing after us with a salt shaker.
There is little trust left between controllers and FAA management. Survey results have yielded comments like this one from a controller at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California; who stated quote, “The controllers are thought to be a mindless horde, incapable of formulating reasonable suggestions to improve anything.”
The imposed work rules included unpopular changes to annual leave policy, removed career advancement opportunities, established new pay bands that decreased controller wages, eliminated rest periods, and left many controllers dissatisfied with their work environment.
As a direct result of this, the total number of fully certified controllers has fallen to a 15-year low.
Nationwide, more than 2,200 controllers and trainees left their jobs between Oct. 1, 2006 and Jan. 5, 2008.
That’s roughly one out of every seven in the workforce. Only 17 of the 911 controllers that retired last year reached the mandatory age of 56.
In order to cope with the shortage, the FAA is calling in regular overtime, and operating shifts without proper staffing, including at some of the nation’s busiest facilities like Southern California TRACON and Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson Tower.
This creates fatigue, which the NTSB and the GAO have identified as a serious safety concern. Controllers’ days and weeks are longer, as is their time on position, which puts dangerous stresses on their mental and physical limits.
Operational errors have increased at facilities where the staffing shortage is most severe.
The FAA’s own data indicates that serious runway incursions are up dramatically this fiscal year over a similar period last year.
The FAA had hoped to handle the high rate of attrition by replacing those that leave with new hires.
However, it has proven impossible to hire and train new controllers quickly enough to handle the outflow.
Nationally, trainees make up a staggering 25% of the workforce. It was 15% just one year ago. Additionally, at over 60 facilities, trainees make up 35% or greater of the workforce. This has led to a degraded and ineffective training program.
For example at Miami Center, new hires have to wait as many as 18 months before receiving any upgrade training due to critically low staffing.
And at Chicago Center, the FAA is trying to shorten the training process from three years to 18 months for the same reason, forcing inexperienced controllers into work situations they may not be ready for.
The results thus far are very troubling. The facility has reached the FAA’s fiscal year 2008 limit for maximum allowable operational errors in just six months.
And now the FAA is placing new hires with little to no experience into our busiest terminal facilities, that are unequipped and unprepared for training a novice. This is like taking a pitcher out of high school and starting them at Yankee Stadium.
The FAA knows its imposed work rules have failed. That is why it has begun offering $24,000 bonuses to veteran controllers to try and keep them from leaving. It hasn’t worked.
This fiscal year’s attrition total is on track to shatter FAA projections by a wider margin than even last year’s record exodus of over 1,600.
But the controllers I represent are professionals who despite enduring these long and difficult days have fallen back on the only thing they have left: Each other.
It’s a bunker-like mentality, of sticking together and looking out for one another, and finding ways to keep the system moving as safely as possible.
This is what we like to describe as the NowGen. Today’s challenges demanding immediate attention.
But as we all know, a considerable amount of time, money and resources are being devoted to NextGen. The FAA has attempted to take the first step in a 20-year plan to transform ATC from a ground to a space-based system.
While NATCA is on record as endorsing any technological advance to improve air traffic control operations, NextGen, as presently conceived, cannot.
And, as we learned recently with stakeholder comments to the FAA’s plan for implementing ADS-B, there are many others with concerns as well.
The Air Transport Association said the current plan would not increase system capacity, efficiency or environmental performance.
The airlines said the FAA’s proposal, quote, “calls for a Porsche when a Chevy can do the job."
AOPA urged the FAA to go back to the drawing board. And the Aircraft Electronics Association described the proposed system as, quote, “ADS-B on steroids.”
Plan advocates point to new technology as a way to overcome the limiting factors of weather and runway capacity.
For us controllers, time is measured in distance, and one minute equals three miles of separation. So, regardless of how closely spaced aircraft are on approach, only one every minute, under ideal circumstances, can land.
It is unlikely that FAA will be in the position to prove which side is right, however, because NextGen is an all-or-nothing proposition.
Which leads me to this question: What is NextGen?
I’m not even sure that the head of the JPDO could explain what NextGen is.
I certainly don’t know what it is, aside from a loaded buzzword, full of hype and PR value, but lacking in substance. Meanwhile, back in the real world, the NowGen is being neglected. Just ask controllers in Miami, Memphis and Northern California who had to deal with major equipment outages just in the last few days.
Here’s what I do know: Until every aircraft flying in U.S. airspace is equipped, and all ATC elements are transitioned from ground to space, benefits will remain unknown.
Compounding the effort’s complexity is the agency’s decision to lease, not own, the ADS-B infrastructure.
As the Inspector General has stated, FAA has never before relied on a service contract for introducing revolutionary technology into the National Airspace System.
There is little doubt that the FAA is embarking on a risky journey with an unproven vehicle.
With that being said, NATCA proposes a balanced, practical approach to transitioning from NowGen to NextGen.
Thirty projects form NextGen’s building blocks, and total over $17 billion dollars.
The FAA must focus its resources and management attention on completing these, and other modernization initiatives vital to NowGen.
More significantly, these projects can ease congestion and delays, and confer needed safety and efficiency benefits immediately, to an ATC system under significant stress.
First, we need to review ground radars, communications networks, oceanic automation platforms, and other system upgrades to ensure adequate backup and redundancy.
All ATC modernization procurements should require complete and full government oversight and testing, of vendor hardware, software, and system performance standards.
Next, we need to expedite delivery of ASDE-X, the safety-critical ground radar technology that has widespread support among pilots, controllers, and airport operators.
In addition, all medium- to large-sized airports should be covered by runway detection technology. At a minimum, at least 60 would qualify.
FAA should also reinstitute its CPDLC program for data transfer between pilot and controllers, to add another means of runway communications when frequencies are congested.
New color-coded taxiway monitoring systems should be deployed, allowing controllers to more precisely track pilot deviations from assigned taxiways during periods of peak traffic or bad weather.
We must also finish terminal automation.
The FAA must quickly determine the end state for the nearly 100 radar facilities without STARS or Common ARTS, and move expeditiously to upgrade them.
Many of these sites face life limits on older technology, and decisions to consolidate or upgrade must be made now. NATCA should be involved in any facility relocation decisions which have safety and operational impacts.
The FAA should also fully fund and complete the system-wide deployment of controller automation technologies like URET, and should move aggressively to automate tower and TRACON flight planning, scheduling, and data tracking procedures, by fielding technology that can fully integrate these functions into NAS operations.
Here’s a big step we propose: Complete oceanic modernization. The agency should expand ATOP to all five sectors in Anchorage.
Additionally, all remaining system trouble reports and software upgrades at all three centers should be expeditiously managed, so that full functionality is achieved.
Outstanding communications problems due to data link and ADS that affect Oakland must be resolved, and a complete overhaul and rewrite of the Oceans 21 training program implemented.
Additionally, a better first step for NextGen might be the early application of ADS-B for oceanic surveillance.
Unlike the high cost, long lead time, technical risk, and uncertain value of ADS-B implementation in airspace already covered by radar, oceanic ADS-B is an order of magnitude less complex and less expensive.
Once in use, it can offer immediate relief to the heavily congested airports in the New York metropolitan area, especially during times of inclement weather. ADS-B can effectively remove the wall we know as the Atlantic Ocean.
The FAA should also immediately install backup and redundant communications lines and switches, for air traffic services considered critical under the old LINCS system, but that are now unprotected under FTI.
And just as a side note, there was a communications outage in Memphis earlier this month in which repair work could not be started until the FTI contractor responsible for the equipment arrived.
That made the problem worse. We feel the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists bargaining unit should immediately be re-engaged on FTI, at both the facility and headquarters level.
Similarly, NATCA, which has had no involvement in FTI to date, should also be included, as this new system’s impact on ATC operations continues to grow.
NATCA’s bottom line is this: We believe that Congress should call for an immediate, comprehensive evaluation of NextGen, before additional funds to implement it are expended.
Until a re-appraisal is completed, FAA should suspend all ADS-B contract activities.
As recommended by the Inspector General, the agency should, at a minimum, establish an interim architecture for what can be accomplished at the front end of the program, perhaps by 2015. This would better define costs and transition strategies.
The way to begin all of this, of course, is for the Senate to pass FAA Reauthorization legislation.
Earlier this month, NATCA joined 35 other aviation groups in sending a message to the Senate to act on FAA Reauthorization.
Not everyone in this room signed on, which is disappointing but not surprising.
If we polled every table in this room, we'd likely find 30 different answers of what a perfect FAA bill would look like.
But I believe we must find common ground so that we can find common answers.
The system can't withstand a series of patchwork short-term extensions. We need a reauthorization bill that is long-term but not short-sighted.
It must put in place the building blocks to construct the system of tomorrow, while not neglecting the system of today.
Air traffic controllers welcome new technology. In fact, we demand it.
If traffic demands continue to rise, then we want to have the best possible tools at our disposal, to keep those planes moving quickly and safely through our airspace.
The FAA has received bipartisan criticism from Congress for not involving us in the modernization process.
It’s been three years now since the FAA abruptly and unwisely ended a successful initiative, in which we sent controllers to serve as technical liaisons on dozens of modernization projects and new procedures.
Yet despite FAA interference, NATCA has worked to earn its own seat at the table with the Institute Management Council, the Air Traffic Management Advisory Committee, the Air Traffic Procedures Advisory Committee, the JPDO and the RTCA.
We recognize that these relationships are critically important, because when controllers are not involved, safety problems occur.
At Atlanta Center last month, there was a near miss involving two aircraft circling in overlapping holding patterns at the same altitude. This was a grossly unsafe procedure that resulted from the FAA not involving NATCA in the process of developing procedures for the new runway.
Up in Philadelphia, we have seen the unfortunate results of the FAA proceeding on airspace redesign efforts without NATCA involvement.
Both controllers and pilots are raising concerns about dispersal headings after numerous miscommunications. The FAA responded to us publicly by stating, quote, “If any controller at the Philadelphia Airport believes that these procedures are unsafe, they should look for work elsewhere.”
This type of needless threatening rhetoric only serves to discourage a transparent and effective safety reporting system. Something everyone in this room recognizes as essential.
While the FAA tries to unfairly disparage us publicly as a hostile labor union, the men and women who perform this job are highly skilled, dedicated and honest professionals, who genuinely love what they do and only seek to be treated with fairness and respect.
I’ve been proud to serve NATCA for two decades now. I believe that unions fight for an individual’s rights for respect and dignity in the work environment.
I believe that Unions provide a level of oversight and work force expertise needed to make any organization successful.
It is essential that positive relationships between labor and management exist, if the United States is to lead the world in innovation and productivity.
In that vein, the new FAA COO, Hank Krakowski, has communicated to me that controller involvement in modernization, procedures and other safety matters is imperative for Agency success.
I look forward to working closely with Hank to turn the current situation around, and begin building trust between labor and management, because until we get there, the system will suffer.
As we stand here today at a critical juncture in our nation’s aviation system history, it is important to note that while the technology portion of our system is getting all the attention, the human part of the system is crumbling.
Without a strong, motivated, and well-staffed air traffic control system, all the high tech equipment in the world counts for little. The Europeans recognize this with their Sesar concept, what’s going on here?
As our Archie League Medal of Safety award winners have reminded us, it is the foundation of human factors, skill, experience, and technology that supports aviation safety.
NATCA remains committed to seeking solutions to today’s challenges and a partner in reaching tomorrow’s goals.
There’s too much at stake to stand by and give anything less than our best effort.
Thank you very much.
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