Management at Work
Is Anybody in Control Here?
I I lhe media called it the “Miracle on the Hudson.” On Interestingly, if Sullenberger, who was 57 at the time of
the wintry afternoon of January 15, 2009, just min- the crash, had been an air traffic controller instead ofa pilot,
utes after takeoff from New York’s LaCuardia Airport, he would probably have been required to retire a year before
US Airways Flight 1549 struck a flock of birds. Both engines Flight 1549 took off. Both jobs, of course, are extremely
were knocked out, and pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger stressful, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
had no choice but to land his 8l-ton Airbus A320 in the mandates retirement ages for both. Pilots, however, can stay
frigid Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan. It was on the job until they’re 65, while controllers must in most
the first crash-landing ofa major aircraft in the water in some cases call it quits at age 56. Why? Because being an air traffic
50 years, but all of the 155 people on board survived. “It was controller, it seems, is more stressful than being a pilot.
intense,” said one passenger. “You’ve got to give it to the pi- At any given moment, there are about 5,000 airplanes
lot.” Fortunately, Sullenberger had 40 years of flying experi- in the skies over the United States. The National Air Traffic
ence, and at least one other US Airways pilot wasn’t all that Controllers Association (NATCA) reports that, on an average
surprised at his extraordinary feat. “He held his cool,” said day, controllers handle 87,000 flights. In a year, they manage
Rick Kurner, who’d flown with Sullenberger for more than 64 million takeoffs and landings. And that’s just sheer vol-
20 years. ume of traffic. Needless to say, all that traffic is also very com-
As for Sullenbe’rger, he remembered “the worst sicken- plex. “Air traffic control is like playing chess at high speed,”
ing, pit-of-your stomach, falling-through-the-fioor feeling” says Pete Rogers, who helps manage 52,000 flights a year to 7
that he’d ever experienced. For weeks after the crash, he and from (and over) Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Mel-
suffered symptoms of posttraumatic stress, including sleep- vin Davis, who’s been directing air traffic in southern Cali-
lessness and flashbacks, but acknowledged that his condition fornia for more than 20 years, agrees: “My daily routine,” he
had improved after a month or two. No wonder Sullen- reports, “is dealing with aircraft that have anywhere between V
berger experienced some repercussion from the stress, says two and four hundred people on board and are traveling at I,
Patrick Harten, the LaCuardia air traffic controller who about 600 miles an hour.”
was on the other end of the line when Sullenberger radi- In addition, not all aircraft are traveling at the same speed
oed’his intention to put down in the river. “I thought it was or at the same altitude, and very few of them are traveling ‘1:
his own death sentence,” recalled Harten. “I believed at that at a steady perpendicular to the ground. Once they learn to
moment I was going to be the last person to talk to anyone “see traffic,” according to New York controller Christopher “at
on that plane alive. . . . I felt like I’d been hit by a bus.” Tucker, controllers “have to learn how to solve the conflicts,
For his own part, says Harten, “the trauma of working an air- preferably in the simplest . . . manner. It can be as simple as ff
plane that crash-landed” didn’t begin to subside until about stopping someone’s climb/descent to pass below/above con- :81;-
a year later. verging traffic or issuing speed assignments to ensure constant
spacing.” Often, of course, it’s not that simple. For example, all tower positions, communicating with aircraft in the sky
explains Tucker, “newer aircraft with highly efficient wings and on the ground, and coordinating the activities of perhaps
cannot descend quickly while going slow, so that has to be three separate facilities.
taken into account when setting up an intrail operation where “And so we have a rise in operational errors,” both at
arrivals must be descended as well as slowed down.” regional and national airports, admits Melvin Davis. In
And then there’s the weather. Controllers record weather 2007, for instance, there were 370 runway incursions at US.
data every hour and have to be constantly aware of chang- ‘airports-incidents in which planes invaded one another’s
ing conditions. “We have to make sure we don’t launch ground space-and according to the FAA’s risk/severity
somebody into a thunderstorm,” says Rogers. Moreover, matrix, the potential for catastrOphic accident at that rate
because storm systems often appear on radar with little or no was “unacceptable.” The next year, however, there were
notice, controllers must also be able to make quick decisions. 951 such incidents, and the total rose to 1,009 in 2009. This
According to Tucker, “the ability to run through possible alarming increase, charges Davis, can be traced to the kind
solutions and quickly choose the best one” is anecessary skill of working conditions that have made air traffic control more
for any controller, and so is “being able to make a bad situa- stressful than ever, especially the policy of assigning control-
tion work after having made a poor decision.” lers to long shifts during which many of them work alone.
At present, there are about 11,000 fully trained air traf- “It’s a business decision,” he says, arguing that the current
fic controllers in the United States-the lowest number in situation at the nation’s airports is
17 years. The total number of positions is slated to increase
by 13 percent between now and 2018, but that rate won’t clearly the result of a reduction in staffing, a decline
keep pace with the projected inorease in the number of air- in experience, and an increase in the use of employee
craft that will be in the skies-not to mention vying for air overtime, which leads to increased fatigue. The result
and runway space at the nation’s airports. At lower-traffic is a 300 percent to 400 percent increase in operational
airports, cost considerations already require controllers to errors. . . which results in two bullet trains coming
work eight-hour shifts by themselves, performing the jobs of together at 600 miles an hour.
1. What about you? Do you think that you could handle 4. “This business of people saying they ‘thrive on stress’?
the kind of stress that air traffic controllers face on the It’s nuts,” says one eminent psychiatrist who goes so far
job? Why or why not? as to say that such people are in danger of slipping into
2. In your opinion, which causes of work stress, or organiza- a pathological state. Nevertheless, some people say that
tional stressors, are likely to be among the most common they like getting into chaotic situations and putting them
experienced by air traffic controllers? Explain your back in order. What about you? Are there times when
reasoning. you seem to be motivated and satisfied by circumstances
3. Controller Pete Rogers says that any gathering of air that most people would call stressful? If your answer is
traffic controllers is “almost like a mini-convention of yes, what kinds of circumstances are they, and why do
Type A personalities.” Does this assessment surprise you you think you react the way you do? If youranswer is
or make sense to you? In what ways is it perhaps a good no, what do you normally do when faced with such
thing? A not-so-good thing? circumstances?
“Miracle on the Hudson’: All Safe in let Crash,” A’fSNBC.com, January wmvmwimescom on April 14, 2011; Alex Altman and Tiffany Sharples,
15, 2009, m-w.msnbc.msn.com on April 14, 2011; Phil Derner IL, “One “Air Traffic Controller Sounds Alarm,” Time, April 26, 2008, Wivuztime
Year after the ‘Miracle on the Hudson,’ an Exclusive Interview with Air Traf- .com on April 14, 2011; Christopher Tucker, “1 Am an Air Traffic Control-
fiC Controller Patrick Harten,” NYCAviation.com, January 18, 2010, http:/l ler,” Daily Speculations, March 15, 2009. mvw.dailyspeculationscom on
n_‘ca’iation.com on April 14, 2011; Steve Myrick, “Air Traffic Control- April 14, 2011; Mary Carmichael, “Who Says Stress Is Bad for You?” News-
‘Chess at High Speed,’ ” Martha‘s Vineyard Times, December 24, 2009, week, February 14, 2009, “nuanewsweekcom on April 14, 2011.
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