In the Eye of Air Control Hurricane : Flight Traffic Handlers Battle Aging Equipment, Long Hours
“Quantas 17, descend to 6,500 immediately, unidentified traffic at 12 o’clock,” air traffic controller Jim Burgan calmly tells the pilot of a Boeing 747 inbound to Los Angeles International Airport from Australia.
A small plane previously unseen on Burgan’s radar scope has just popped up in front of the jumbo jet over San Pedro Channel. The planes, more than three miles apart, separate as ordered.
In this windowless room lit by the glow of green blips on radar scopes, another controller is warning a pilot to steer away from trouble when--ERGGH!--the collision-warning alarm buzzes. Nobody panics. This time, two planes have momentarily violated their mandatory three-mile separation. Moments later, a fire bell in a nearby equipment room announces a blown fuse in the radio communications vault.
“These things happen all the time,” veteran controller Randy Moore says. “This is a normal morning.”
This was Thursday morning inside one of the world’s busiest air traffic control centers. Coast Terminal Radar Approach Control, or TRACON as it’s known in government shorthand, is a drab building set among supply shacks and aircraft hangars at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
For the moment, the facility is also one of the more controversial places in the world of air traffic control. The Federal Aviation Administration’s regional center has been making headlines for months, with complaints about faulty computers, staff shortages and controller errors.
Few outsiders are allowed in. Moore, a former Air Force controller who has spent 15 years staring at the green blips, is helping to conduct a rare tour that management hopes will improve the center’s image.
This morning Moore is already on overtime, working a mandated sixth straight day because of staff shortages. By the end of the day, Moore and his colleagues--who help direct traffic to and from Los Angeles International, Ontario, John Wayne and Long Beach airports--will have handled 1,800 aircraft. In one year, the blips of 600,000 aircraft will shimmer across the screens in this small video arcade-like room, where a sign stating “Cleared for Take Off” hangs from the ceiling.
Moore, one of 54 controllers assigned to this center, was on duty Sunday when some 15-year-old memory storage modules in the facility’s computer system failed, intermittently wiping aircraft identification, speed and altitude information from controllers’ radar scopes.
FAA officials say public safety remained assured because radar and voice contact with aircraft was never lost. Moore and other controllers say the computer outages forced them to delay some airliners from entering Coast TRACON’s airspace and to stop some pilots from practicing takeoffs and landings at area airports.
But the computer snafu was only the latest problem.
In May, the National Transportation Safety Board criticized the FAA’s “failure to address and correct” air traffic control deficiencies that had contributed to a narrow miss Feb. 13 between two airliners above Westminster.
The safety board complained about “inadequate controller staffing, excessive use of overtime . . . and inadequate size and poor physical condition of the operational quarters” at El Toro.
“Specifically,” the safety board report said, “the facility is rundown, noise from military jets is a problem, rotary phone equipment is out of date and inadequate and the facility manager questions the health hazards of the environmental control system.
“Controllers have been working scheduled overtime since 1985, and six-day workweeks are required 66% of the time.”
During Thursday’s two-hour tour, the facility’s air traffic manager James H. Panter says he was puzzled by the safety board report because NTSB investigators already knew in May that the radar room was being remodeled to accommodate more radar scopes and controllers; that the recreation or “break” room was being improved, and that a new, modular temporary building would be installed next to the facility soon.
“It’s not a pigsty,” Panter says, referring to news reports that quoted a safety board official’s colorful characterization of the facility. “You can see for yourself.”
Indeed, there have been major changes since a visit four years ago. The radar room is bigger, and so is the break room.
A 20-inch color TV sits in a tall oak bookcase-entertainment center, beaming a lesson on French cooking into the break room.
The June issue of Car Stereo Review is on a shelf. Besides couches, chairs and two tables, there’s a new almond-colored countertop, stove and a refrigerator in the kitchen section of the L-shaped room, as well as two microwave ovens.
Handprinted notices about a July 21 water-skiing and jet-skiing party at Lake Perris and a going-away party for one controller are taped to the bookcase, along with humorous quotations and cartoons clipped from recent newspapers.
Controllers say they welcome the change in the facility. “The morale is pretty good here,” controller Ted Brys says during a rest period in the break room. “I like the way everyone works together.”
Brys, Moore and other controllers are pleased with the recent Bush Administration announcement that controllers in Orange County and other places with high housing costs will be paid a 20% salary differential aimed at keeping and attracting more staff members.
“I’m single and live off Lake Forest Drive,” says Brys, who has worked at the facility for 2 1/2 years. “But a lot of the people here have families, and a lot of them live out in Hemet and the Moreno Valley because that’s where they can find the only houses they can afford.”
Looking around the break room, one controller notes: “The only thing we need now is a basketball hoop.”
“We’re working on it,” says Moore, who is the facility’s representative to the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn.
Controller Merle Warren looks up from his newspaper to comment that he likes the facility but finds the schedule too grueling.
“The overtime gets kind of tired after a while,” he says. “When you come in on your sixth day, it doesn’t seem like the day is ever going to end.”
The mandatory overtime may not end soon. In the next few months, new air safety zones are scheduled around John Wayne Airport, which will increase the facility’s workload.
Panter says he believes that a planned increase in staff--up to 66 controllers--will be sufficient.
“We already have new people selected,” he says.
As the tour winds back to the radar room--which, despite the expansion, is already crowded--Panter notes that the FAA is in the middle of a four-year improvement program.
Eventually, he says, most if not all of the airspace in Southern California will be controlled from one center.
Ten sites for the new center are under review, with details about the sites not available, Panter says, but he has gleaned this much:
“One of the sites is somewhere in El Toro.”
Panter watches an air-conditioning engineer change ceiling vents in the radar room. A blast of arctic air hits one controller in the back of the neck. Without missing a beat, he says:
“OOeee! That’s nice! American 147, look for traffic at 10 o’clock.”
ON THE BLINK--When the FAA’s computers go down, controllers fly nearly blind. Graphic, Page 28.
WHAT WENT WRONG AT TRACON
For several hours Sunday, flight data repeatedly disappeared from video screens used at the El Toro-based regional air traffic control center. Backup radar still showed a plane’s position--but data on altitude, speed and identity vanished.
1. The top line shows airline and flight number. This one is Delta Airline 1715. 2. The second line shows destination (LAX) and type of aircraft (Boeing 727). 3. The third line, which alternates with the second in one-second intervals, shows altitude and groundspeed. 090 23 means the plane is at 9,000 feet and doing 230 knots. 4. The letter to the left of groundspeed is the “transfer control status” ( C means control of the aircraft is being handed over to another radar facility.) The letter on the right is the “enroute indicator” ( E , for enroute, means the aircraft is merely passing through).