Thursday, October 29, 2009

Learning from NWA188

The Northwest flight (NWA188) that missed its mark and overshot MSP airport last week continues to be in the news. I still can't get over how both pilots could disassociate themselves from the task at hand to the degree they did, especially considering that in a job such as piloting an aircraft, multitasking is a necessary ability. The pilots have lost their licenses and have been suspended and now the focus has turned to the FAA and why we were so slow in notifying the military of the situation.

There's a bit of disinformation in the news today with respect to who failed to notify the military as our protocols require. You'll likely hear that 'controllers' failed to do this when in fact controllers did everything they should have. When it became apparent that the flight was no longer responding to radio calls, controllers notified management. In situations such as this a controller will ask the supervisor in the area to contact the flight's operations desk and give them a message to call us on a radio frequency we provide them with; it's a common occurrence. Other times a controller may ask a company flight on frequency if they can send a message to their dispatch via a data link and have them contact us. We can usually reestablish communications in just a few minutes. Once a controller has notified the supervisor there isn't much else to do or that needs to be done from in front of the radar scope.  We simply wait for the flight to call.

I'm not sure how far along NWA188 got before the military was finally notified but based on what I'm hearing in the media it was much later than it should have been. I've heard the flight was silent for as long as 91 minutes.  That's a long time by any measure.  In our post 9/11 world we've established procedures to allow us to be much more proactive in situations such as this. For whatever reasons it appears we fumbled this one quite badly.

What will we as controllers and management learn from this? Plenty I hope.

Switching gears just a bit here.

We occasionally get Quality Assurance briefings at work where they play for us (on fancy new projectors mounted from the ceiling which receive data from a laptop at the podium) audio and radar data of close calls (separation errors) in hopes that we can learn from them. Sure, we can all take something away from these situations but the problem I have with the way they're conducted is that management uses errors of our coworkers much to the humiliation of the controller involved. Figuring out who the controller is isn't difficult as their voice isn't distorted. It's embarrassing to the individual and it's entirely the wrong way to go about it. We could just as easily use events from other facilities around the country where the person involved would be anonymous to us but we don't.

After our last QA briefing I talked with the manager who presented it and asked him why it is he doesn't use anonymous events from similar facilities rather than embarrassing my fellow controllers? He responded by saying that if he were to tell me he'd run a stop sign on the way into work it would have more of an impact on me than had he told me of somebody who I didn't know running a stop sign. Huh?  No, I don't think so; besides, we're not talking about running stop signs. He implied in our short talk that he had no intention of changing the way he conducts his briefings. I told him I disagreed with his approach and left it at that. What more could be done or said?  It's his call.  He's one of our better managers actually in my opinion but his logic here left me bewildered.

Management has little to fear from being embarrassed like the rest of us in a QA briefing because their time in the sector is extremely limited and it's nearly always when there's little to no traffic. Their chances of getting two together are very remote.

This latest incident with NWA188 raises an interesting question for me. Will QA brief us on how management should have handled this event better? Will they talk about distractions that may have played a role in their lack of attention to a serious matter? Will QA talk about what management should have been doing while NWA188 flew over the top of MSP at 37,000 feet totally bypassing their destination with the military none the wiser?  I'm curious to see how this is handled.

To ignore this episode and management's role in it in future briefings will speak very loudly indeed.  Maybe now QA will have a better understanding of my concern when it's management's actions that are being scrutinized before a roomful of people; except, this time it's much more than a roomful of people.


Craig said...

Thanks for writing this Kevin. I have thought about this quite a bit since I too have been made an example of by management. They hold all the power and unless you go outside of the building and to the press, they are not held accountable for there bungling of the situation. Where were the fighters??? We did our part.

Kevin said...

You're right, Craig. Management can do no wrong and they do whatever they like. The past few years have been an eye-opener. Give them total control with no accountability and see how they abuse their 'power'. Quite sad, really.

Anonymous said...

But the public knows, from the stories, that ATC, or "controllers" were slow to notify. I don't know that they differentiate much between management and rank and file controllers. Their understanding of job/responsibility distribution comes from...... where?? "Pushing Tin"?? "Airplane"???