Other bits and pieces

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Did You Have the Fish?


The really hot news anchor lady looks at me dead in the eye during the 30 second news teaser that precedes my show about dueling barbers and says, “Is our air traffic control system truly safe?  Before you get on another plane; what you need to know at 10!”  It was just one of many reactions in the media and elsewhere that have popped up like some sort of spastic whack-a-mole to the recent reports of ATC employees neglecting their duties by either sleeping, or watching a movie, or doing needle point (or whatever ATC dudes do).  Be afraid, citizens!  Your thinking talking heads have spoken! Now: Everybody panic.

Okay, I get it.  Sensationalism sells news.  That’s not new, but a modicum of journalistic integrity wouldn’t be a complete disservice to the boob-tube adhesed proletariat.  Do the writers down at the local Baltimore station really believe that our nation’s air traffic control system is so fatally flawed that I am risk for even thinking of striding down the birth-canal of rapid transit that is the jet-way at my local terminal?  Of course they don’t think that, but they make a lot of people who believe the ATC system is populated by a collection of magic fairies think it’s true. 

The problem is that the going public doesn’t really just stop going.  That would actually make some sense in the realm of respect for causality.  Instead, the angry mob that still wants to be able to go from Upper Sandusky, OH to San Francisco for less money than a tank of gas for a Hummer H2 in 4 hours without the slightest of inconvenience (if only the Donner party were still alive to see us today) demands that anyone and everyone who was within 6 miles of the offending ATC facility be fired, drummed out of service, tarred and feathered, and drawn and quartered.  I think people should embrace a little perspective here.  Here we go.

Just last week, two Cleveland Center controllers who were working the graveyard shift were suspended for watching a DVD movie.  Granted, it’s dumb and they shouldn’t have been doing it.  A couple of weeks before that there were several incidents reported involving late-night tower controllers having been asleep at their posts.  Wrong? Yeah…cataclysmic?  Hardly.  Everyone and their brother jumped up and vilified these people for dozing off at nearly 3 a.m. at a tower where no planes were doing anything…at all…for hours.  So who is it that’s crying foul?

I would venture a guess that at least 90 percent of my dear friends on Facebook have fallen asleep at their desk (or work-equivalent for those who are fortunate enough not to have to have a desk) at least once in their career.  I know that most of them have spent time during their duty cycle playing a game on their computer, watching videos of people falling off skateboards, or any hundred of a thousand different interweb time-wasters.  But, oh, that’s right, that’s not a big deal because these guys hold the lives of thousands of people in their hands with each deft motion of their lips at that microphone.  Actually…not so much.

The VAST majority of airports in this and every other country do not have a control tower.    Of the ones that do, there are hundreds of commercial airports, supporting big fat airplanes that shut down their towers at night.  And get a load of this:  There are procedures that every pilot knows for landing at uncontrolled (non-towered) airports.   What?  How can it be possible for an airplane to land on a runway, all by itself, without being talked down like the Apollo 11 Moon lander?  Well, for starters, the pilot can see.  That helps.  Also he knows how to land a plane, definitely a bonus, oh…and check this out…this is the best part:  The pilot of an airliner has a gajillion dollars-worth of equipment on his plane to de-conflict him with other airplanes and help him land it all nice and smoothy-like!  In reality, it’s probably safer to just leave it to the pilots than involve the controllers.

As for the center controllers; do you even know what they do? They spend most of their time simply keeping IFR aircraft talking on the right frequencies.  Those planes they are controlling are in lanes and separated out by altitude blocks corresponding to direction of travel.  The planes are equipped with devices that broadcast their position to other airplanes (The equipment is required).  They have lights.  They are big.  They are shiny, the make big white streams of cloud behind them.   Oh, and did I mention pilots aren’t typically clinically blind?  Basically, it’s really hard at 35,000 feet to hit an airplane with another airplane.

I would never postulate that ATC controllers at centers and towers don’t provide a critical function for public safety.  It’s just not that big a deal if one of them loses focus for a bit in the wee hours of the morning.  Think about this; most of you will text while driving after reading this and still cast aspersions on decent ATC workers who lost their jobs for the same kind of thing most Americans do at work every day.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a report that’s due but there’s a video of a roller-skating pig over at The Chive.com I need to check out. 

Safe travels my friends…chances are…they will be.


© Raymond Smith 2011
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