The Big Sky Theory

My Story of ATC for Decades

Enhancing the Annuity

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One small filler. Sometime around 1986+- management decided that the age of specialization (increasing in the real world) was a bad idea for ATC. No longer would we have controllers who specialized in High Altitude and the unique conditions obtaining there, or controllers who specialized in Terminal areas and the unique conditions obtaining there. Nor would we continue to take less talented individuals who couldn’t manage either of those high density, high complexity arenas and put them in areas where we could still take advantage of their training and the FAA’s investment. No, we were going to throw everyone together—all one big happy meld of ATC talent. Something for everyone. We created areas with a little of each.

At the time I argued that we were moving in the opposite direction from every highly technical, highly, well, specialized, endeavor in the world. I opined it was much like going to a proctologist for an eye exam. That’s my original, and it’s as relevant now as it was then. Didn’t make them rethink it though. They forged right on ahead and did it, which involved a certain amount of training for virtually every controller in the building, young or old. I wonder how many hundreds of thousands of dollars that idiotic idea cost.

The Southwest Area was born from a couple of West Terminal sectors, a couple of West High sectors and three or four West Wing sectors. Similarly were the Southeast (East Terminal, East High, East Wing), Northeast (East Terminal, East Wing, North Wing), Northwest (West Terminal, West High), South (West High, West Wing, East Terminal), and North (North Wing, East High) created. It was a stupid idea. Nevertheless, facing the inevitable, when I made the choice of where to go I picked Southwest.

There were a couple of reasons for my choice—the more fun of the two arrival sectors in the West Terminal was PLANO, plus, there was a mini-arrival sector (STQ) which went along with it. Consequently, instead of losing one of two, I actually kept one and a half of two and a half. Secondly, because I had been certified in West High years before, when it came time to certify on those WH sectors coming to Southwest, it would be almost a paper whip operation for me. I would have had the same situation with the associated high sectors if I’d picked NW, so I guess it was the arrival sectors that carried the weight.

Unanticipated at the time was how long the seven of us who went from WT to SW would wind up working just those one and a half sectors. Pure fun for a year or more. The sups let us set our own break rotation (usually three of us on each day/swing shift), which was almost a license to steal, especially since STQ was kept combined with PLANO for most of the two shifts—splitting off primarily when there was an arrival rush at PLANO. After all, there was no time to train us in the other sectors, as ultimately the focus would have to be getting all the other people trained on ours. We did train a lot, but to me, one hour of training at an arrival sector was better than even a minute of being one airplaned to death at a wing sector.

After brief flirtations with management positions when I was at ZJX (for which I was eminently unqualified at the time), I resolved, when I got to ZAU that being a full performance air traffic control professional was a perfectly satisfactory career. So I did that for twenty years.

During that time, I continued to garner high praise for my skills and mediocre reviews for my sandbox play. The review system was rigged so that you could receive very respectable numbers and yet still fall short of a monetary award…unless they wanted you to get one. Although I felt slighted, it wasn’t serious, and frankly it amused me somewhat that controllers who did nothing but control small numbers of airplanes in the Wing sectors would get an award every rating period, while I, who had chased high density traffic every place I’d worked, got squadoosh.

It’s not insignficant. In the General Schedule (the pay system under which I worked) there are annual step increases for the first three years in grade. Starting at Step Four, the step increases are biennial (every two years), and once you reach Step Seven, you only get a pay raise every three years. Those folks getting Quality Within Grade awards had their pay increased by a full step a year or more before they were due. The effect was permanent and cumulative. Someone who may have gotten their GS-14 at the same time I did (14 February 1977) might have reached Step 10 six or seven years ahead of me. That’s not chump change. Factor in the annual COLA (which is independant of the step increases) and one’s annuity is affected, as well.

After twenty years in the trenches, I started doing the math, and recognizing that I just wasn’t going to be getting those step increases that others were, I decided that improving my annuity prospects would necessitate going to the management track. By this time I figured I didn’t owe the profession, my coworkers, or my self respect anything. I’d legitimately done my twenty. So, the very next staff job that was advertised, I bid on and won (1988).

The job was as a Traffic Management Coordinator in the Traffic Management Unit at the watch desk. It was kind of the best of all the worlds, as it put me in close, regular contact with managers who would have a say in future selections, and it was actively albeit directly involved with traffic, rather than isolated in an office upstairs.

The billet was an up and down experience. I had a daily detail at ORD for a couple of months which was bittersweet. Practically no one from my days was there, and my duties were in the tower, not in the TRACON which was my old stomping ground. It was a pain, as the principal assignment was for the JFK rush around noon. Other than that there was a lot of sitting around. I learned some new stuff, though, so it wasn’t a complete drag, but I didn’t re-up for the detail when it was offered. One upside was that I managed to smooth out a lot of my rough edges. And I learned a couple of things about myself that would prove very useful later on, both in and out of the FAA.

I renewed my TMC assignment after one year but then a bid for Quality Assurance, a true office job, came up and I won it. In many ways that may have been my most satisfying year. I got to interact with staff and management in an entirely different way than as a controller and even as a TMC. The job itself actually made me a better controller in the simple fact that it made me spruce up my phraseology significantly. I served as acting QA manager for a while, too, which helped with the exposure.

In the meantime, in 1988 the FAA decided to abandon the MPP (Merit Promotion Program, which we euphemistically but accurately referred to as “man previously picked”) and institute a process called the Supervisory Identification and Development Program (SIDP). It was announced with an opening date of 13 October 1988 (from recently uncovered document, SIDP-89-1) There were several phases of the program candidates had to undergo. The first was a Peer Assessment, in which you got some (I’ve forgotten the number) of your friends to complete a standardized questionnaire.

The second part was a Supervisory Assessment, which although you might suspect I would fail miserably, I managed to get some good marks out of a couple of managers, most importantly, the last three for whom I’d worked. Upon successful completion a candidate was scheduled to travel to the Regional Office for a Skills Based Interview. They brought in managers from throughout the region so that no one you knew would be on the panel. Toward that end, I believe they were successful in making it as objective as was possible.

There were three main outcomes from the interview and two sub-outcomes. If you attained a high enough score, you were immediately placed on the Eligible for Consideration (EFC) List. No further competition was necessary for an available opening—a candidate needed merely to announce their interest in the position. The selecting official could pick their desired candidate straight off the list.

If one didn’t score high enough to make the EFC list but had demonstrated sufficient talent to consider further review, you were referred to the Regional Review Board (later named the Candidate Review Board) which provided another level of consideration, and from which there were two possible outcomes—one was an individual development plan in which you had an opportunity for some self improvement, upon the successful completion of which you were placed on the EFC list. If you didn’t do well enough for that, you were given an interview which outlined areas needing improvement as a parting gift to try again next year. And, of course, if one didn’t even attain that level of success, a similar parting gift was presented, which is to say, “try again”.

To the shock, no doubt, of many, although I didn’t score high enough on the interviews and role play scenarios to make the EFC list directly, I scored high enough to make the RRB, Level One. All I had to do was some structured self development and I’d be placed on the EFC list upon successful completion. The remedial program I worked out with the QA Manager (my supervisor, and one of the only sponsors I think I ever had) was easy and we had it done in a couple of weeks. I submitted the package and was on the EFC list within a month or two of the interview.

My records indicate that I bid on at least a dozen openings filled from the EFC list over the next few years. However, by 1993 they yanked the SIDP program altogether. All that time and money for what had the potential to be a good program and they essentially went back to Man Previously Picked. My guess is too many truly promising candidates made it through, who, at the same time didn’t fit the good old boy profile of yes man. I imagine it also weeded out some good old boys who weren’t smart enough to be actual good management candidates (“good” in the sense of promoting agency goals regardless of merit, not actual, you know, good managers). The agency’s one shot at a worthwhile program—Epic Fail.

I was eligible to renew for a second term in QA, although I bid a job in Airspace & Procedures. That would have been another conspicuous checkmark on my CV, but somehow I wasn’t selected. Although I got along well with the manager, I suspect there may have been some personalities at play (about which I had no notion or intuition—I only speculate about it from conversations I had years later with some of the parties). Given that I’d already been successful in interviewing for two other high profile jobs, as well as demonstrated outstanding staff performance over the previous two years, I’m confident that I was not the problem. That kind of let the air out of my sails so I opted to go back to the boards.

I picked the South Area, for something new. The two high sectors were old friends, so it was just a recert for them, and South Departures was just West Departures turned 90°, so that was almost a recert. The BOONE sector (MDW arrivals) was much like STQ, so it was pretty much a recert, as well. The two wing sectors took about a shift (including breaks—what does that tell you?).

BOONE, particularly being an arrival sector, was new to practically everyone in the area. Because of my broad terminal experience (ten years), and my well documented significant training record from the Southwest Area, I was asked to train people at BOONE (training, even at an arrival sector, can get tiresome, so it was no small concession for me to agree to the task). There was quite a period of time in which everyone in the area who was certified at BOONE had been trained by me. Although technically certificaton was done by a supervisor (most of whom in the area had zero terminal experience), I was frequently delegated to provide check rides and “recommend” certification, which was always confirmed. A charitable observer might assume I’d have gotten a Quality Within Grade for that effort, wouldn’t you?

What with all the experience I’d had (40 radar positions by now), two staff jobs, EFC list, etc., I started politicking for some of the temporary supervisor assignments that kept cropping up (and bypassing me). It finally took some serious campaigning by my supervisor (the sole contribution he made in an otherwise worthless association) but they grudgingly gave me one in the South Area in 1991.

Although I had some trepidations the night before my first shift, it took about 30 seconds for me to get in the swing of things. In addition to managing the area with skill and knowledge and treating everyone with respect, I completely organized the sup’s desk and made other improvements in the area. My proudest accomplishment (although as much a matter of luck than skill) was that I never turned down an annual leave request in the duration of my detail. I got a nice note from my Area Manager at its conclusion attesting to how well I’d performed. I was surprised to get some complimentary remarks from otherwise underwhelmed coworkers, as well.

It wasn’t enough, and the icing on the cake was they curtailed what was supposed to be a 120 day detail to 90 days. By this time, quite frankly, I was fed up with the process. I had done everything that was supposed to garner a promotion but that pesky personality kept getting in the way. I suspect they knew I was never going to be a spineless yes man, so I imagine I was never really a prospect.

I must confess, I didn’t really come to understand all this until some time after I retired. And I don’t completely to this day. After all, they had promoted self confessed pricks like Jerry Stokes, as well as several other people easily and universally described as “difficult” people. A few were alcohol abusers (some rehabilitated, some not). And most of them weren’t nearly so experienced as I was. Frankly, the way I’ve come to grips with the matter is to accept that I controlled traffic for thirty years and be happy with that as a career, which, in fact, was my mantra for most of it, anyway. So, what’s not to be happy about?

The final satisfaction in my mind was recognition that FAA management was the singular failure, not me. After all, I believe it’s generally considered that managers are only successful when they’ve successfully developed their replacements. The FAA had an opportunity to make a smart, skilled, experienced leader part of their team and they failed to do so. Who’s the loser in that equation?

So, I was sanguine in my own mind, and at the distant remove of more than twenty years, and several dives into the archives yielding a considerable body of outstanding performances, I’m sure I’ve assessed things correctly. After the epiphany I had on the beach in Miami (in 1995, while visiting my brother, I realized I’d be okay if I left ATC for good), all I had to do was put in about three more years (to get the kids out of college—I was already eligible for retirement) and I could bail. What could possibly go wrong now?

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