The New Normal

TPM Reader JT checks in from the front lines of the sequester:

Many of the stories regarding sequestration have spoken only generally about which services will be affected instead of the more interesting question, to what degree that the public will notice.

In my case, I work as an air traffic controller at an air route traffic control center, a facility which handles the airspace between your departure and destination airports.

At any given time, your airplane will be in a chunk of airspace, or sector, belonging to an individual radar controller. When a sector’s traffic increases to an unmanageable level for a radar controller, we subdivide that sector to reduce the number of airplanes being handled by a single controller, or we add other controllers to share that controller’s workload until it reaches a manageable level once again. In practice, this usually means that we break down our airspace into all or most of its component sectors by 8 a.m., and we begin the process of combining them again for the midnight shift around 9 p.m. The bottom line is that this system depends on having a certain number of controllers available at a given time of day, to manage a given volume of traffic.

We have been told to expect one furlough day every two weeks, starting in the middle of April. In terms of scheduling impact, this means one or two fewer people on the day and swing shifts for whom we will not backfill with overtime. This means that we may have to work more than one sector combined, longer than we would otherwise. This means that there will be fewer people available to serve as radar associate controllers, performing required coordination and ensuring that the radar controller sees and resolves all of his conflicts. This means fewer breaks offered to controllers, whose increasing mental fatigue may manifest as more instances of losing required separation between airplanes.

Coincidentally, mid-April also marks the beginning of what we call “thunderstorm season,” wherein larger and more frequent thunderstorm formations cause airplanes to deviate from course to avoid those formations, and controllers work harder to ensure that airplanes stay apart. Because my agency’s most powerful constituents are airlines and freight carriers, I think that we will try to accomplish the same amount of work with fewer available resources, at least initially. Sooner or later, safety will necessitate longer ground delays to manage demand in the air for the major metropolitan airports that most passengers use. Whatever our New Normal is, I promise that any frequent airline customer will notice the difference by the end of next month.