I told them to get somebody else to help me track all these airplanes. And then as I sat up in my chair to reposition myself, I totally lost the picture. I’m like, Oh shit. There were five pieces of the puzzle that I was juggling and I couldn’t remember where they were going. The backup guy saved me. But in the six years since we developed a severe staffing shortage, that kind of backup hasn’t always been available.
My father was an air traffic controller. The famous air traffic strike that he joined in 1981 wasn’t about pay, it was about staffing levels, scheduling, and more than anything about getting better equipment—making things safer for people who fly. As those technology changes have slowly come, so has new kinds of productivity. But even the newer equipment can’t totally replace us.
One of our computer systems, the User Request Evaluation Tool, takes the information in the flight plan and it projects it way out. It says, Okay, these airplanes are going to be in conflict with one another in awhile. The younger controllers with less experience rely on it, but I’m looking at the radar screen or a set of strips and saying, You gotta do something about this. And they go, Why? —Because trust me, this is gonna be a problem in a minute. And sure enough, five minutes later, there is a problem. Even with the best computer in the world, human experience will see beyond what the computer can see. And that’s your double-edged sword.