Slam and Jam

For all the reports of equipment failures and "close calls" and controller burnout, the nation's air-traffic-control system is in fact far less precarious, in terms of safety, than people imagine it to be. The real threat to the system's integrity has as yet received little attention

Then came deregulation, and the steady growth of air traffic. At New York Approach a controller with tattooed forearms and a ponytail told me his insider's history of the Newark sector. He meant it as an insider's history of the entire national air-traffic-control system. He said, "For years you're sitting around Sleepy Hollow eating your brown-bag lunches. Then one day you look up and, Jesus, you've got a hundred airplanes inbound, and every one of them is low on fuel." even more planesThis happened when deregulation pulled People Express, and then Continental and others, into the Newark void. The controller said, "The managers and headquarters types, the paper-pushers, they would have run away. The only reason the system survived was the skill of the guys working the mikes. They dropped their sandwiches. They threw away their manuals. They stood up to the traffic. They managed to patch things together."

The real history is less tidy, because nationwide in 1981 most of those valiant controllers went on strike and lost their jobs, and it was then the turn of the managers and headquarters types, emerging from the back offices and reviving old skills, to stand up to the traffic for the year that followed. The pressure was eased by a stopgap reservation system and an enforced reduction in flights. Nonetheless, to everyone's surprise, the managers actually did as good a job of controlling the air traffic as had all those "irreplaceable" union members. Working in small and enthusiastic teams, they demonstrated convincingly that parts of the old system had been overstaffed. But to accomplish this they, too, had to cut a lot of corners and ignore many of the demands of routine bureaucracy.

The frustrating part of this story is that after the FAA hired and trained a new, smaller work force of "permanent replacements," the managers returned to their offices and, in many cases, lost respect and feeling for the job the controllers had to do.

The permanent replacements—strikebreakers by another name—were naturally compliant at first. They were blank slates, the sort of fresh young recruits harboring hopes for promotion who could have been made to share the perspectives of friendly, flexible, and competent management. They gave the FAA an opportunity that other troubled organizations can only dream of—to shed the burdens of the past and move beyond outdated concepts of hierarchy and conflict. But then the strikebreaker-controllers came face to face with the airline boom, the congestion around hub airports, the front-line problems of sequencing converging airplanes. To keep the traffic moving they had to disregard a growing stream of impractical directives from the managers. There was no mystery about why the pre-strike pattern of distance, distrust, and hostility was reasserting itself (everyone involved knew the history), but it seemed all the worse for its institutional inevitability. At New York Approach, I met two brothers—one a manager, the other a controller—who had stopped speaking to each other because of it. In their anger and intractability I saw the emotionalism dividing all air-traffic control.

The resentment today is so strong that for many controllers their hatred of the FAA has become a burden that outweighs the original pleasures of the job—the "slam and jam," the giving of good service. Any sense of common purpose has long since disappeared. A controller in New York mimicked his bosses for me. He said, "When I was a controller, I worked aircraft. It was easy. I told them what to do, and they did it. Now that I'm management, I work controllers. Same deal. I tell you what to do, and you do it." Another controller, from California, wrote this to me:

You seemed to be surprised when I mentioned that controllers have a vested interest in the failure or the embarrassment of the FAA.... "They" have taken our profession and our FAA and completely screwed it up. "They" have blown every opportunity to do what is right. "They" have devoted their efforts to the goddess of bureaucracy.... "They" have relegated "us" to second class status. "They" have completely forgotten why "they" and "we" are here.

Management, for its part, must cope with a profound political uncertainty. This is usually explained as a confusion between two missions—to promote and yet to regulate civil aviation—and the confusion has been real. (Congress last year eliminated the FAA's formal responsibility for promotion.) But the uncertainty also stems in many cases from the managers' envy of their natural adversaries, the unfettered executives of the airline industry. The executives are the people who crowd airline passengers into hub airports and then denounce the FAA for the resulting delays. And the FAA does not really disagree. The politics plays like a cultural revolution, in which disdain for the government becomes an orthodoxy required of the government itself. Moreover, it is generally agreed that airline deregulation is an experiment that has worked, and that the very growth of traffic is one proof of it. When forced, FAA managers can still talk tough about maintaining standards, but they do not dare to suggest that the market has created imbalances, and that through re-regulation or more-clever mechanisms the hubs may someday have to be abolished, the traffic dispersed. They cannot even state the obvious—that air traffic remains a classic example of the need for public control.

The FAA's managerial ambivalence only reinforces a sense among the controllers, incident by incident, that the managers do not stand up for them but instead, for example, side with the airlines in the persistent and irritating disputes over delays. These disputes have become systematic because to a degree unimagined even by many active pilots, the FAA has surrendered to free enterprise, allowing the airlines to penetrate every level of air-traffic control. Beyond taking a hand in the planning and architecture of the system, the airlines now employ full-time representatives to question the smallest operational details—a certain flight forced to hold, a certain runway selected because of weather, priority given to one airplane or denied another, a routing or even an altitude suggested. For the airlines big money is involved. Among the controllers the feeling of abandonment is so strong in certain radar rooms that some controllers would be willing to take the entire structure down. The managers know it, and in turn feel betrayed by the controllers.

What makes this fight peculiar is the coding that allows it to be waged invisibly. Practically everything about air-traffic control—whether it emanates from the controllers, their managers, or the airlines—now has a private as well as a public meaning. For instance, a proposed new system called "free flight" would give pilots more freedom to pick their own routes and more technology to help them do it safely, with less guidance from controllers. "Free flight" may mean "smart technology" and "progressive thinking" to outsiders—and it probably would increase the capacity of the sky—but it means something quite different to the front-line controllers. To them, it is a policy so obviously irrelevant to the bottlenecks on final approach, which greater pilot freedom can only make harder to manage, that it must be interpreted as a taunt about the value of controllers and a threat to their future. Even when new policies make sense, the controllers I have spoken with sometimes interpret them as assaults on the working men and women. The controllers fight back through alarmist "equipment failure" articles in the press and through careful cultivation of the safety myth—a tactic especially galling to the managers because they themselves lack credibility with reporters.

Also hotly contested is the use of Flow Control, a command facility with formal responsibility for the hour-by-hour functioning of the national system and the power to intervene. Flow Control originally achieved prominence as a rational response to the 1981 strike, enabling a small team at FAA headquarters, when necessary, to delay takeoffs across the nation in order to keep the reduced staffs at the busiest destinations from being overwhelmed. It was meant to be a fraternal player, the controllers' friend and adviser. Since then, however, it has turned into something quite the opposite. Based in a futuristic radar room near Dulles Airport, it has become a master center, with electronic vision that sees every airplane in the system and the authority to question and, in some circumstances, countermand decisions made by individual controllers. The problem is not simply that controllers and Flow Control often work at cross-purposes, leading to needless delays; there is also the matter of symbolism. Flow Control has inserted teams into all the regional facilities—specialists who dress better than controllers, and work under more relaxed conditions, sometimes from raised islands at the center of the control-room floors. Those who say that Flow is just another bureaucratic empire have vastly underestimated it: whatever its impact on air traffic, Flow is also in fact a Big Brother.

The controllers' union would like nothing more than to break into Flow Control. So far it has been unable to. Now the angriest controllers accuse the union itself of selling out. It is a dangerous sentiment: a similar escalation preceded the illegal strike of 1981, but that experience is still well remembered, and no one expects the controllers to make such a mistake again. One reason is that the FAA itself provides them with rules and procedures that, if strictly followed, can snarl traffic nearly as effectively as a strike. But even a rule-book slowdown seems heavy-handed, since possibilities abound for more subtle dissent. Renegade job actions in particular can be as spontaneous and creative as a controller's best work, and where the airspace is already crowded, they require just a delicate lack of cooperation to produce palpable consequences.

With such renegade actions, which have already begun, individual controllers quietly gum up the works. One man described the technique to me this way: "Slow down, speed up, slow down. Now turn right, turn left, stay up, go down." With one airplane you can create a ripple that will last for hours. You can also require unusually large in-trail spacing, or you can simply put airplanes into holding patterns. It all amounts to sabotage. The pilots involved may not be aware of the reasons, but increasingly they have begun to question their clearances, and to express dissatisfaction. Civility is disappearing. From the controllers' point of view, the beauty of such protests is that they can occur naturally in the political climate of the control rooms, and they are easily deniable, or defensible in the name of safety. The delays they cause are difficult to distinguish from other, ordinary delays. Flow Control can eventually figure out what is happening, and may try to intervene, but usually does so too late. Airline passengers are affected, of course, but that is beside the point.

Once again, the conversation is in code: renegade slowdowns deliver a clear threat within the agency, yet a threat so technical that it remains invisible to the outside world. Neither the union nor the FAA will admit that such slowdowns are going on.

Meanwhile, air traffic keeps growing. According to conservative estimates, the volume will increase by 40 percent during the next two decades. No doubt some new airports will be built. A few hubs will be broken up. And for a time the air-traffic-control system will continue to function, because of the complex forms of compensation that go on within it. But the quiet war will be waged all the while, and its nature should surprise no one if it breaks out into the open.

Presented by

William Langewiesche

"Enclosed are Two Pieces on Algeria." With those words, typed on plain white bond, William Langewiesche introduced himself to the editors of The Atlantic Monthly. Although neither piece quite stood on its own, the editors were drawn to the unusual grace and power of Langewiesche's writing and sent him on assignment to North Africa for a more ambitious piece of reporting. The result was the November 1991, cover story, "The World in Its Extreme"—his first article to appear in a general-interest magazine. (He had, however, written frequently for aviation magazines; he is a professional pilot and first sat at the controls of an airplane at the age of five.) Since that article, from which his book Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert (1996) grew, Langewiesche has reported on a diversity of subjects and published four more books.

A large part of Mr. Langewiesche's reporting experience centers around the Middle East and the Islamic world. He has traveled widely throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, reporting on such topics as the implementation of the shari'a in Sudan under Hassan al-Tarabi, North Africa's Islamic culture, and the American occupation of Iraq. Other recent assignments have taken him to Egypt, the Balkans, India, and Central and South America. In 2004 he won a National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.

In 2002 his book American Ground: Unbuilding The World Trade Center was published. It is based on a series of three cover stories he wrote for The Atlantic as the only American reporter granted full access to the World Trade Center clean-up effort. His latest book, The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, was published in May 2004.

The Blacksmith: A Short Film About Art Forged From Metal

"I'm exploiting the maximum of what you can ask a piece of metal to do."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In