Air traffic controllers traditionally watch out for each other as a group, knowing full well that few people outside towers and radar rooms truly understand the daily pressures of keeping airplanes safely separated. But a report last week shows there just might be a kink in that armor of solidarity.
A Biloxi, Miss. controller turned in a co-worker for running two aircraft -- a turboprop and an Air Force C-130 -- too close together. Standards require separation of 1,000 feet vertically and three miles laterally. The Biloxi controller's separations clocked in at 300 feet and 2.59 miles. The same Biloxi controller had been cited for running aircraft too closely together just a year ago and was temporarily removed from the job.
Sources said the new finger-pointing efforts could also represent a shot across the bow in a new professional standards program agreed to between the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) and the FAA. The goal might just be to help the FAA more easily rid itself of poor controllers, something that also benefits NATCA.
The FAA said it has fired more than 130 controllers since October 2009. NATCA had no one available to comment, but an FAA spokesman said the agency and "NATCA have partnered on a professional standards pilot program that provides an opportunity for employees to address performance and/or the conduct of their peers...which provides an additional mechanism for union and management to address workforce issues."
Outsiders, however, have said the new program also leaves the door wide open for controllers to potentially rid themselves of comrades they don't like or trust.