Yesterday, I posted quotes from two NATCA bulletins, describing the recent action by the Senate and the House to stop the air traffic controller furloughs. This made national news, and no doubt the general public thought the situation had been resolved. But . . .
Even when the government moves fast, there is still the bureaucracy to contend with. And while the congressional action has made the news and will let the FAA steal from Peter to pay Paul, none of that happens immediately. As I write this, it is expected that it will be Tuesday before all the I's are dotted and the T's are crossed.
But meanwhile, the public thinks that everything's okay again. After all, they heard about it on CNN: The controller furloughs are over.
On the other hand, this is the federal government we're talking about: Woe be unto the department head or official who moves before all the paperwork is in order.
However, the public is expecting immediate action. Waiting for administrative details to be attended to before getting controllers back to work would cause sufficient outcry from an already-aggravated public that somebody's head would end up on a platter. What to do, what to do?
So Saturday was an ever-changing, dynamic environment: Meetings, conference calls, and e-mail updates were all chasing the latest decisions about the furloughs. We heard differing stories as the day went on: They were going to keep the furloughs in effect until the President did something; They were going to cancel the furloughs at the end of the pay period, once everybody had taken one; They were going to keep the furloughs that were already scheduled but allow the use of overtime to back-fill; and so forth, throughout the morning and into the early afternoon. Finally, shortly before the end of my shift, we got official word that the furloughs were being cancelled effective immediately. Calls were made to those controllers scheduled for furlough to try and get them to come in to work. As it was a beautiful Saturday afternoon in southern California, I imagine the success rate was pretty low. Those of us who hadn't yet taken their furlough day were given the option of keeping the day off as a vacation day or coming to work as usual. As yet, I've heard nothing about what will be done to/for the controllers who were already furloughed for a day.
More to the point, by Sunday night we will be back to full staffing.
But we had started the day on Saturday in full furlough mode: LAX had about a half-dozen controllers on furlough, and all the other ATC facilities across the nation were short on people as well. And it got ugly. At LAX, we had to put ten miles between each departure to the respective departure sectors -- spacing that on a normal good-weather day could be as little as one mile (with visual separation being applied). Then there was also extra miles-in-trail over certain fixes in addition to the miles-in-trail off the airport. None of that was because LAX tower was so short on controllers, it was because somebody else, somewhere downstream, was. To make things more interesting, a military warning area offshore went active, which placed addition spacing requirements on a popular route, and shut off another one entirely.
Where all this really came to a head was on ground control, because nobody was reducing the number of airplanes that the ground controllers had to work: the airlines were running their normal schedules, despite the FAA advising them of the likely delays before the furloughs even began. Saturday mornings are a busy departure time at LAX, as folks who didn't get out last night head off for the weekend or possibly start a week's vacation. And because of the furloughs, we had one less ground control position than we might otherwise.
When much fewer airplanes are taking off than normal, but the same number of airplanes are taxiing out for departure as always do, the result is inevitable: An incredible line forms at the end of the runway. Eventually, the line gets so long that it threatens to block arriving airplanes trying to get from the runways to their gates. So we start holding departures on the gates because there's no room for them on the taxiways. Then the arrivals can't go to their gates because there are still aircraft parked on them. If they can't get to the gate, the ground controller has to keep dealing with them out on his taxiways. Worse yet, if the line gets bad enough, airplanes in the line waiting to depart start to discover that they no longer have enough fuel to make the flight. Others may have their flight plans expire.
Meanwhile, because of the flow restrictions on departures off the airport, departing aircraft are also being sent to the correct side of the airport for the direction they want to fly -- no cross-over operations (a cross-over is when a south-bound aircraft takes off from the north side of the airport). Thus, a lot of Southwest aircraft are finding their way to the south side of the airport to join the line for departure (they're not the only ones, just the most visible). Oh, and there's still A380s to contend with as well. There's a reason there are no pictures with this entry: Because there wasn't time to mess with the camera.
This is when we really earn our money: When there's more airplanes than gates or taxiways, and the only way to move one of them is to move all of them; nobody can park on a taxiway somewhere to wait it out. The south-side ground control at LAX (aka Ground One) has always been our meat grinder position for controllers -- and trainees. We lose more trainees on Ground One than any other position in the tower. We lost one just a week or two ago, in fact. For a long time, it was considered a given that if a trainee made it through Ground One, they were going to make it all the way. That's not been the case so much lately, but it's still pretty much the acid test.
And yet, we all want to work it. Every chance we get. For any given LAX controller, that's rarely more than once a day, and quite often not even that much. But given the choice, most of us will take it every time. Even when you have to work just to survive the session.
While yesterday was my first opportunity to see the furlough traffic at LAX get this bad, I've been hearing stories of it occurring pretty much everyday since the furloughs started. I'm currently training somebody on the ground control positions, and we got three sessions yesterday. What a baptism of fire. And while he didn't make it through unscathed, he did make it through. He's a keeper.
I tell you all of this so that you can perhaps get just a little better idea of what your controllers have to work with sometimes, and how we work to get you there safely. Every time. And we're glad to be back.