THE runways of Newark International Airport now rank among the most heavily used in the world. Day after day, night after night, in good weather and in bad, the airplanes bear down on them. Their traffic is relentless. Drivers on the adjacent New Jersey Turnpike can count on the distraction: the procession of lights inbound to the runways, the graceful touchdowns, the taxiway parades, the miraculous banked, nose-high departures. The view provides a measure of changing times. The equipment out there is complex, capable, even exotic—but the sheer quantity of it is what seems most impressive. Flying is up, and nowhere more so than in the New York metropolitan area. The big orange radar that stands beside the turnpike never stops turning.
The radar sweeps the sky beyond the eye, helping to keep watch on the intertwined arrivals and departures at New York's three major airports. The first two airports, LaGuardia and Kennedy, each handle a third of a million flights annually, and Newark, which used to be called Sleepy Hollow and is still commonly thought of as a lesser airport, is in reality now even busier than the others, accounting for nearly another half-million flights a year. Because jets fly fast and turn wide, these three airports, which once stood distinctly apart, now lie atop one another. Adding to the tangle, each of the region's smaller airports—White Plains, Teterboro, and Islip, to name but three of them—produces its own heavy flows of traffic, while just overhead pass flights cruising to and from Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. The result is the most crowded airspace in the world.
It is because of this congestion that I chose New York to explore my impression, gained nationwide as a working pilot, that many of the public's concerns about air-traffic control—that the equipment is dangerously old, that safety is compromised, that poorly monitored aircraft threaten to collide in midair—are largely unwarranted. Certain elements of the air-traffic-control system should be cause for concern, I believe, but these relate to efficiency and morale rather than public safety.
The problem with making this argument, and with getting at the authentic problems facing air-traffic control, is that people simply refuse to believe it. If there is one thing that nearly everyone can agree on, it is that air-traffic control is critical to the safety of flight. Decades of movies and news reporting have contributed to the idea that controllers "guide" airplanes, that the task allows no room for error or inattention, that controllers must have superhuman reflexes and cool nerves, that only split-second timing and fast computers keep disaster at bay, that passengers' lives hang in the balance—and that the work of air-traffic controllers as a consequence is impossibly burdensome. These images jibe so neatly with people's instinctive distrust of flight that they have acquired the force of an accepted reality and have become the necessary starting point for any conversation about air-traffic control.
The plain truth, however, is that this "reality" is something of a myth. You will never hear it being punctured by the controllers, in part because the myth gives them leverage with the public. To be sure, we must on no account brush aside the potential for accidents in flight. Concern for safety is the bottom line of all aviation—in the cockpit as well as in the control room. But within air-traffic control, concern for safety functions narrowly, atop a high level of safety provided already by pilots and aircraft designers. Mistakes by controllers have led to accidents, but only as one link in a chain of unfortunate events. Air-traffic control's main function is to provide for the efficient flow of traffic, and to allow for the efficient use of limited runway space—in other words, not primarily to keep people alive but to keep them moving.
If you equated the job with juggling you would be only half right. Like jugglers, controllers are practiced at handling constellations of flying objects. There is, however, an important difference. When jugglers get distracted, their constellations tumble to the ground. But when controllers make mistakes, or lose their radar or radio, the airplanes continue to fly. Even if these jugglers were to stop suddenly and walk away, the elements of the constellations would on their own eventually slow down, take in the situation calmly according to a variety of routine procedures, and discover places where they could all land softly. Imagine juggling in a low-gravity world using smart balls that knew how to navigate and to talk to one another, and could find ways not to collide. That, though simplified, is a more accurate picture of the worst-case environment of air-traffic control.
Of course, once the balls land, they will not rise again without the juggler. That, too, is the nature of air-traffic control. Controllers have to juggle well, and willingly, in order to keep the rapidly growing air-transport system aloft. And only the most persistent glad-talker would deny that over the past decade controllers have had difficulty, for whatever reasons, in living up to the demands placed on them. The consequences are serious, if perhaps not for safety then for the web of commerce that an efficient aviation system sustains. But air-traffic control's core problems are both less tangible and more difficult to resolve than most people imagine. Yes, hardware should be modernized, and in theory new airports could be built to relieve the growing congestion, but air-traffic control's greatest weakness is cultural and organizational, and will not yield to the microchip and the dollar.
This failing lies deep in the soul of the Federal Aviation Administration, an agency divided into two mutually antagonistic cultures, management and the working controllers, each with its own traditions and memories. The FAA has other problems as well, of course. It has been accused of wastefulness and stupidity, and has been held partly responsible for recent airline crashes, because of its role in certifying airline and airport operations. In response it has promised to streamline itself and to pay closer attention to detail; Congress has decreed other changes. But such reforms, to the extent that they touch it at all, only brush the surface of air-traffic control, a highly individualistic profession in which discontent now rises like a specter from the past.
Sixteen years have passed since the great controller strike of 1981, when Ronald Reagan fired most of the air-traffic-control work force and destroyed their union, giving the FAA the opportunity to build afresh. There is, however, a new union now, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, and although its concerns and activities receive almost no public attention, its members are coming to be as angry as the people they replaced.
ON a first visit to the cavernous radar room of New York Approach, the noise, commotion, and apparent chaos seem to validate the worst fears about air-traffic control. Certainly air-traffic control has become more dynamic than it was in days gone by—the days of men with crew cuts and white shirts, holding binoculars and saying "Roger." Controllers today wear T-shirts and jeans, and have adopted the swagger of the street. This place called New York Approach, which has responsibility for the low altitudes above the entire metropolitan area, is situated away from the airports, half an hour past Kennedy on Long Island. It is known throughout the world of aviation for the fury of its controllers, especially those assigned to the Newark sector, who work in a condition of permanent frenzy—shouting, complaining, joking, staring at their screens with gum-chewing concentration, swearing at their supervisors, punching the keyboards, gesturing when the radio transmissions of the pilots do not match their pace.
This is the sort of intense activity cited in cases of controller burnout, and it obscures the actual functioning of air-traffic control, making it difficult to penetrate. As a pilot, I had the advantage of speaking the language: I spent days there following the technical details, and came away feeling that the intensity was mostly self-induced, and was in fact what the controllers thrived on. The opportunity to indulge in it seemed, in fact, to be what had drawn them to the job. Keep in mind, too, that this was New York, where intensity is a way of life: like other New Yorkers, the controllers complained about the pressure on them, but largely because they would have been embarrassed not to. They complained also about the food in the cafeteria, the condition of the roads, and life on Long Island. One man finally admitted, "How can you go home from this and be satisfied mowing the lawn?" For a controller, this was practically a declaration of love. About the only time the controllers seemed genuinely upset was when they talked about the FAA.
I don't mean to diminish the controllers, or to belittle the experience and dedication they bring to the job. The sight of a radar scope swarming with little ovals, each representing a flight, is indeed daunting. But what does it mean that control rooms can sound like trading floors? Perhaps only that air-traffic control has become less regimented, more human, and more complex than originally anticipated—which may even be for the best. Argue the risks as one might, there is no doubt that air-traffic control consists increasingly of informal solutions pieced together at the last moment to cope with an overwhelming flow. In that sense it is a typically American institution—the problem coming first, the attempt to manage it coming afterward.
On the most mechanical level, the most pressing issue that air-traffic controllers face is a surge in air traffic without a commensurate expansion of runway availability. Since 1978, when President Jimmy Carter deregulated the airlines, unleashing competition among them, the number of scheduled flights in the United States has grown by nearly 70 percent. And the growth has been lopsided: of the several thousand airplanes aloft during a typical daytime rush, most are headed for the same few cities. The busiest fifty airports, out of thousands of airports altogether, now account for more than 80 percent of the nation's traffic. This is not merely because those places are where people want to go but also because to stay competitive, airlines need efficient route structures centered on hubs—the now-familiar passenger-exchange airports that by their very nature increase the number of takeoffs and landings.
Newark, for instance, does double duty as an arrival point for New York City and as a northeastern hub for Continental and Federal Express. Faced with all the inbound airplanes, its approach controllers have no choice but to deal with them. They grapple with the core problems of overcrowded airspace: that flight is fast, fluid, and determinedly forward-moving; that every airport, airplane, and pilot is different; that thunderstorms, fog, wind, ice, snow, or merely low clouds can block a route or slow a runway; that even under a clear blue sky airline schedules push airports past their limits. The slightest bump then ripples backward, forcing the controllers to scramble. A flight may miss an early turnoff from a runway, or come in too fast or slow, or ignore a call on the radio, or jump out of line with an engine shut down. A new pilot may be unsure of the local procedures. An old pilot may get huffy and insist on having his way. These things happen constantly. The resulting complications are measured in wasted fuel, wasted money, and wasted time—but not in lives, or even in levels of danger.
Across controllers' radar screens I watched the targets move in short jumps, dragging identifying tags behind them: Lufthansa, United, Continental—dozens of airplanes at a time. By assigning headings and descent paths, the controllers for the Newark sector angled the flights down from the mid-altitude collection points known as arrival gates, joined them up to the south, and swept them into an arc that took them north past the airport and skirted LaGuardia's airspace before bending back around, straight in for the runways. The purpose of the arc was only secondarily to keep the airplanes apart. Its primary purpose was nearly the opposite: to give controllers the flexibility necessary to tighten the spacing, and to exploit the occasional gaps by shooting airplanes in from the side, pushing them toward the airport ahead of sequence.
The most basic geometry of air traffic dictates that departing airplanes fan out and so usually diverge, that cruising airplanes only sometimes cross, but that arriving airplanes must inevitably converge. The traffic compresses accordion-style as the airplanes slow toward their touchdown speeds. The compression does not mean that the airplanes are in danger of rear-ending each other: closing speeds are low between airplanes flying in the same direction. The formal separation requirements, which are measured in miles, are dictated ultimately by the civilian orthodoxy that requires one airplane to taxi clear of the end of a runway before the airplane behind it lands at the beginning. Military pilots routinely fly and land in formation, and safely. I don't mean that airline pilots should too, but the margins built into standard civilian procedures are large. That is why New York Approach controllers take their pride not in the collisions they avoid—an issue that almost never comes up in the manner civilians imagine—but in the pressure they keep on runways.
ONE might argue that I have described the wrong kind of controllers, that in order to understand the urgency of the work one must visit not the radar people funneling the traffic in but rather those at the receiving end of all that accumulating traffic pressure—for instance, those who stand guard at Newark International Airport itself, high atop its control tower.
When I climbed to the glass-walled cab where they work, the center of the operation was a slight young man with blond hair and birdlike reactions, whom I will call Dobkin. He wore a lightweight headset and held a transmitter switch down low in his right hand. It was Dobkin's turn on the frequency known as "local," which gave him responsibility for the airport's two parallel runways, the narrowly separated "22 Left" and "22 Right," running southwest beside the turnpike. The third runway, a short east-west reliever called "29," crossed the paths of the parallels and conflicted with their traffic. It was a cramped and awkward layout.
Dobkin said, "We work with what we've got. The parallels were built way too close for simultaneous approaches. We use the outer runway for arrivals. We use the inner runway for departures. We try to run the props over there on 29, keep them out of the way of the jets, but we can't cross them into the main approach. When the wind's light, we flip that runway back and forth, pump a load of departures to the west, then bring the inbounds around for landings to the east."
The idea that such an air-traffic controller is somehow in the business of "talking airplanes down" is part of a myth fostered specifically by the movies. Dobkin had ridden in cockpits a few times, but he knew little about the actual flying of airplanes. Between radio conversations he told me how he had come
He had a high-strung personality, encouraged by the work. If the purpose of his game was simple—to squeeze the maximum possible use from these three runways—in execution it was fast-paced, complex, and competitive. He said, "You've got to use every chance, every gap, to move the traffic. Slam and jam. The job keeps you on your toes."
And safety? It intruded not as an active, minute-to-minute concern but as a set of rules within which one had to perform, the most basic of which was the restriction against simultaneous operations on a single runway. Perspective is needed here. The deadliest airline accident in history was a runway accident that occurred in 1977 when two 747s collided on Tenerife (in a fog, one taking off, the other taxiing across); other runway collisions have occurred. They have all, however, been freakish accidents resulting from multiple errors by both the controllers and the pilots. Except in the worst weather, or sometimes at night, pilots can easily see anyone lingering on the runway, and on their own initiative can delay their takeoffs, or if they are landing can add power and climb safely away from the ground. It is primarily because such go-arounds waste valuable landing slots, and further burden the final approach, that controllers work to avoid them. In other words, Dobkin took the timing seriously, but as an efficient practitioner of traffic flow rather than out of a sense of averting danger.
The airport beyond the glass walls crawled with airplanes moving slowly toward the runways. Thousands of passengers sat patiently in their seats. Dobkin's attention went first to the traffic pouring down the final approach. He judged the inbound lights with a familiar mixture of confidence and concentration.
The inbounds first showed up on the tower's radar screen, where we watched the work of an unseen Approach controller who was pushing the flights closer together than the tower would be able to keep up with for any length of time. Dobkin asked the pilots for speed reductions, which worked at first but soon rippled backward. The tower supervisor telephoned Approach for better service, and was told irritably that Approach itself was being force-fed by the long-distance controllers over at New York Center, who in turn were squabbling with their counterparts in Cleveland. In the meantime, because of Teterboro and LaGuardia traffic, New York Approach could not swing the Newark inbounds any wider. Approach threatened to make space by freezing turboprop departures off runway 29, a restriction that would have crowded the turboprop departures over to the parallels.
There simply was not enough room for all the airplanes, not in the air and not on the ground—at least not without delays. So far Dobkin had avoided any wasteful go-arounds, but the airplanes now were barely clearing the runway before the traffic behind flared down across the threshold. After a Delta pilot checked in with a stately drawl, Dobkin knocked twenty knots off the Continental flight that followed. To me he said, "You learn to read the signs." Delta dawdled after landing. Off the radio Dobkin snapped, "Come on, dumb boy, clear the runway." Delta did, and Continental landed short, with company behind.
The unfortunate consequence of Dobkin's success was the speed with which it was filling up the airport. To make room for the new arrivals, ground control kept pushing loaded airplanes up the taxiways toward the departure runway, 22 Right. Dobkin cleared them for takeoff as aggressively as spacing within the outbound corridor allowed. With relief provided by runway 29, the tower had managed to avoid gridlock on the ground; nonetheless, departure delays were steadily growing longer. The reason had to do with aircraft performance: while descent angles and approach speeds can be matched for most inbound traffic, optimal climb angles and speeds vary widely among departing airplanes. Moreover, because the heaviest airplanes generate especially strong wakes immediately after lift-off, additional spacing behind them is required.
For Dobkin the result was an inevitable irregularity in takeoff timing, which translated into the inefficient use of 22 Right. Ground control worked to reduce the effect by bunching airplanes by type so that they could be launched in quick order. The success of this strategy then created another problem: having landed on 22 Left and pulled onto the taxiways between the runways, the arrivals could not cross the departure runway to get to the terminals. They accumulated between the runways until, by threatening to block the runway exits for landing traffic, they forced Dobkin to hold the takeoffs. Dobkin tried hard to avoid such holdups by exploiting the natural gaps in the departure flow. He said, "It's Traffic 101: you cross behind a heavy jet, a seven-two, a prop. You use every chance you've got. You don't forget any part of it. You keep this traffic moving." What he did not say was "You keep this traffic apart."
Not that the lives-hanging-by-a-thread idea was entirely absent. I asked Dobkin about the famous burdens of the work, the toll on controllers in shattered health, divorce, and drink. "Sure," he said uncomfortably. "It's hard sometimes—I've known guys who had to get out."
Another controller joined in. "Me, I always picture the children. Nightmares, you know."
I may have smiled.
Dobkin indicated me with a tilt of his head. "He's a pilot." He meant it as a caution. The other man turned away, saving his emotional pitch for someone else.
Earlier a controller had said to me, "Stressed out? If you're the type, sure, but then it's the freeway traffic when you're driving to work that will really do it to you."
PILOTS do not believe that air-traffic control is in the business of keeping them alive, or that it needs to be. This is a matter not of principle, or of bravado, but of simple observation. The surrounding sky is so large that even when another airplane passes nearby, it remains by comparison very small. I talked to a controller involved in research with radar simulations, who said, "You'd be amazed how hard it is to vector two airplanes into each other."
Air-traffic control does have an immediate technical presence in the cockpit, but moment by moment it has less to do with the safe operation of the airplane than with the forward progress of flight. From tower control to radar to tower again, a procession of voices accompanies each airplane across the map. Their presence is humanized by accents, moods, and informalities, and by a shared sense of accommodation and competence. Good controllers are neither automatons nor traffic cops. At the start of a trip they deliver a "clearance," assigning the airplane a computer-generated route to the destination. In an uncrowded sky such a clearance might stand alone as a guarantee of traffic-free flying, eliminating any further need for controllers. In the actual sky it serves instead as a fallback plan in the event of radio failure, and as an approximate prediction of the actual flight path.
The details fill in after takeoff. Controllers thread the departing airplanes through the first busy altitudes with headings and climb restrictions. Pilots are expected not to comply blindly but rather to judge and agree. They distinguish between the controllers' wrongs and rights. Often they can even predict their instructions.
Eventually the pilots are turned loose to proceed high and fast on course, either along the airways that zigzag across the grid of navigational stations on the ground or, more commonly, in airplanes equipped with independent long-range navigational devices, directly toward the destination. Over the continental United States the airplanes cruise under the surveillance of "centers"—en route radar facilities whose role, despite the increase in traffic, remains less interventionist than passengers might imagine: across a sky so deep and wide, "control" consists mostly of monitoring flights as they proceed by routes and altitudes that have been approved by the computers but that remain essentially the pilots' or airlines' choice. With controllers' routine approval, pilots cut corners, deviate around thunderstorms, ride good winds, slide above or below reported turbulence. Controllers intervene if they see a conflict developing, or if other controllers elsewhere ask for delays or route changes. The respective roles are clearly defined: controllers may separate airplanes, but pilots still navigate them.
Like other pilots who fly in crowded airspace, I have had close calls with traffic. But "close" can mean many things. Is it a crossing that merely surprises you, or one that requires an evasive maneuver, or one so tight and fast that no maneuver is possible? Or is it—most likely—merely the violation of an official standard that may to some extent be arbitrary? Again, collisions require extraordinarily bad luck. The sort of head-on encounter in which another airplane appears as a dot and within ten or twenty seconds fills your windshield is very rare. Neither pilots nor controllers need gunslinger reflexes. Airplanes sidle toward each other slowly.
Of course, you cannot just elbow your way through bad weather and into crowded airports. Still, let us imagine an instantaneous collapse, one day, of the nation's entire air-traffic-control system. Air transportation would of course eventually grind to a halt, and large parts of the economy would soon be paralyzed, but in the meantime safety probably would not be affected. Pilots in flight would certainly sit up and pay attention—and in some cases even grow worried and tense—but they would continue to fly and navigate normally. They would find the radio frequencies printed on the charts, and talk to their own airlines' dispatchers, and radio to one another as they do already at the many uncontrolled airports. If they were originally headed for a hub like Newark or O'Hare, they might turn and fly somewhere else. Some would have to revert to cumbersome arrival routes, and many would have to hold for a while. But few pilots would feel seriously threatened. This is all the more true in modern cockpits equipped with traffic displays. In the airplane I fly today, I often spot other airplanes electronically (not to mention by looking outside) before controllers mention them to me.
Certainly the air-traffic-control system has become an ill-planned patchwork with geographic overlaps, conflicting procedures, and chance redundancies that exist as remnants of earlier times. Airplanes move from one little zone of control to the next, are spoken to across overloaded voice-radio frequencies, are handed off from one controller to another, and are given the sort of customized service that often preempts the needs of the larger traffic flow. Individual control facilities function as parallel fiefdoms, each with its own traditions, procedures, and compromises, each speaking directly to (and squabbling with) its neighbors, without passing through any central command. If you were to design a system from scratch, you would never design this. Nonetheless, one consequence of the system's haphazard structure, of its decentralization and its very inefficiency, is to scatter whatever equipment failures there are, and to provide pilots and controllers with a rich weave of choices when something goes wrong—the radio quits, the radar quits, the computer quits. No air-traffic-control equipment failure has ever yet caused an accident.
My point about the hardware is not that it is perfect but that as an educated user I do not feel threatened by its imperfections. Within such a large and complex system we can assume that equipment will wear out or become outdated, and that the government will compound the problem by responding slowly or incompetently. It is, of course, absurd that the FAA has not yet replaced all the old unreliable IBM computers that contain routing information for flights. And it is annoying that the addition of new power supplies in several centers caused outages that in turn led to major delays. And it is disgraceful that the FAA wasted hundreds of millions of dollars between an overambitious attempt to consolidate control rooms and its poorly managed, ill-conceived, and now-abandoned "advanced automation system"—an attempt to automate a wide range of internal air-traffic-control transactions. But on what basis, exactly, do people care that a controller's radar display does not contain the processing power of a personal computer (which it doesn't need)? And why do we worry that backup flight information is still written out on strips of paper? And what was the point, technically, when a Secretary of Transportation a few years ago held up an old vacuum tube for ridicule? The controllers whose workplace he meant to improve are said to have jeered at his theatrics: even he must have known that vacuum tubes are not the problem.
THE real problem lies not in hardware but in human relations. To understand this one has to move beyond the public myth, and beyond even the operational reality of the business, into a murky inner world of pride and collective memory.
From its origins in the 1920s among the agencies responsible for the new and bewildering activity of human flight, the FAA developed an institutional personality that was raw, arrogant, and domineering. For generations most controllers came from the military, bringing with them a hierarchical view of organization that was further encouraged by the nature of the work. The managers were controllers who had worked their way up through the ranks, taking pride in each small step, savoring the distinctions that marked their rise. Those distinctions may have been subtle at first, but they grew and strengthened, and eventually came to define management's style.
By the 1970s, however, a younger generation of controllers had become restive. Faced with a belligerent rank and file, the FAA management commissioned a team led by a psychiatrist, Robert Rose, then of Boston University, to conduct a study of controllers' mental and physical health. The Rose report, published in 1978, confirmed the popular impression that controllers had stressful jobs (they suffered disproportionately from hypertension and certain psychological difficulties, including uncontrollable anger and antisocial behavior), but it concluded that the causes had less to do with the pressures of air-traffic control than with divisiveness within the FAA: "This finding of 'It's not so much what they are doing as the context in which they are doing it' holds definite implications for changes that might be considered in the work environment to reduce the risk for future morbidity." In short, much of the problem lay in the way the FAA was run.
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."
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.