01:28 - Source: CNN
Air traffic control expert: Flying is less safe now

Editor’s Note: Les Abend recently retired after 34 years as a Boeing 777 captain for American Airlines. He is a CNN aviation analyst and senior contributor to Flying magazine. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN —  

The news reports of air traffic delays affecting many major airports in the Northeast shouldn’t surprise anyone, especially airline pilots. I’d indicated this possibility in an earlier piece for CNN.

It’s a testament to the fortitude of air traffic controllers that it hasn’t happened sooner in the monthlong government shutdown.

The delays have a simple explanation. First, like the thousands of other essential government employees required to be on the job, the controllers aren’t getting paid. The stress of not knowing how to pay the mortgage on top of an already stressful occupation, doesn’t allow for a restful night’s sleep. A fatigued controller has the potential to make mistakes. Enough said.

Second, because of delays in training new controllers, and the fact that the Oklahoma City training facility has temporarily closed its doors because of the shutdown, further delaying the process, the profession is operating with staff shortages already. In addition, some of the support staff have been furloughed. For a profession that requires precision, these are all the ingredients for breaches in safety. It’s no wonder that a number of these folks, as a safety precaution, are calling in sick.

The controller’s solution is to slow the number of airplanes allowed to flow into the national airspace system by creating greater spacing for takeoff, en route, approach and landing, reducing the risk of collision, so any one controller handles only a certain amount of traffic in his or her sector at one time. This is most efficiently accomplished via ground stops. In other words, airlines are given the delay before they even depart the gate. Or else the delay would translate into long taxi lines of planes, or conga lines, as we like to call them.

As an airline pilot, I know from personal experience how frustrating the delays are. But we understand the reason for them, especially under these circumstances. And in normal circumstances, airline pilots are powerless to eliminate air traffic delays.

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    Instead, we confer with our dispatchers and carry more fuel in anticipation of possible holding patterns prior to our approach. An airplane has a maximum weight it can carry, so the more fuel it carries, the fewer passengers it can take on a given trip. Shorter legs are usually flown with smaller aircraft that are more sensitive to weight restrictions, as opposed to wide-body aircraft that travel longer distances and have more flexibility with takeoff and landing weights. Add contingency fuel for inclement weather, and the situation can become even more frustrating.

    So, I applaud the air traffic controllers for slowing down the flow of traffic. It’s all done in the interest of your safety. And it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.