The Big Sky Theory

My Story of ATC for Decades



Shift Work

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Linda and I lived happily ever after in her small one bedroom apartment (I gave mine up when we got married) for a few months, but now with two fairly substantial incomes, it was time to move to nicer and roomier digs. We found a great apartment complex on Baymeadows Road and moved there. That took me out of the carpool biz and I commuted 44 miles by myself for the next eight months or so. For a variety of reasons, we then decided to buy a house. We got back to the Arlington area, back to carpooling, and into homeownership—the American Dream.

Over the next 14 months we did married things, had married adventures, made married friends and generally had a good life. Professionally I was moving airplanes every day—some busier than others, but always different always new. If you like the discipline and structure of a rigid routine, air traffic control is not for you. No two work sessions were even remotely the same. Sure, you could depend on most of the same players showing up at around the same time and the same place every day—Eastern, National, Delta, Northeast, United, TWA—all flying their regular schedules. The variations were a result of delays in pushback, delays in taxi sequence, delays in enroute sequence. By “delay” I don’t mean missed flights or holding—I just mean that Eastern wasn’t ahead of Delta every day, and National's LGA to MIA flight wasn’t off ahead of Northeast’s similar flight every day. Multiply those random sequences by twenty and you can imagine why every work session was different.

Each facility (I restrict my discussion to centers, as that’s my principal arena of familiarity) had their separate areas, as I’ve already described, but staffing was divided, in each area, into seven crews. Why seven? Air traffic control is a 24 hour a day, seven day a week operation. In centers and large towers there is always someone on duty. Seven happens to be a number which ensures coverage of at least one person on every single shift in a week, and provides each person with five shifts per week. Multiples of seven ensure adequate coverage for the numbers of sectors which need staffing.

In other words, you can cover all 21 shifts of a week with just seven people, each of whom works five days and has two consecutive days off (RDO). So, each crew had roughly six to eight people, each area had seven crews, and the extra staffing not needed on the mid was apportioned to days (primarily) or swings. Scheduling is part science, part art, so the scheduler had to make sure no one worked two swings, two days, then a swing—that wasn’t good for anyone.

Schedules were implemented in different ways. Some facilities ran a 2-2-1 schedule with fixed days off. A 2-2-1 means that every week one is assigned two afternoon shifts (or swings), two day shifts, and finally, a midnight shift (or mid). Although there are two “quick turnarounds” in every week, meaning getting off a shift and then eight hours later coming back to work another, most controllers liked quick turnarounds because you could get two shifts out of the way in 24 hours. Plus you had the advantage of a long weekend—getting off at 0800 on Friday morning and not having to be back at work until 1600 Monday afternoon. The price we paid for 2-2-1s was fatigue. When you’re young and stupid (and maybe single), a quick turnaround is nothing—the resilience of youth lets you recuperate all you have to in that eight hour off period, even factoring in two one hour commutes.

But rotating schedules in general and 2-2-1s in particular are rough on family life. It’s not really an argument against 2-2-1s but it is against rotating shifts, although there is no good solution for those. And that’s true in every profession that has 24 hour availability—police, fire, public health, public utilities, etc. Not mixed into the equation yet is RDOs. Everyone wants Saturday and Sunday off. Well, almost everyone—there were some folks who valued the dollar more than their time who wanted to work every Sunday (we got a pay differential for work outside of normal business hours—10% extra for the hours between 1800 and 0600, and 25% for Sundays. Holidays paid double). There were also people who preferred swings—some liked the generally less busy shift, some liked being away from staff people, some liked the 10%. To accommodate the majority, however, there had to be a way to spread the RDOs around.

In Jacksonville, our variation of the 2-2-1 was by week, not day. Our schedule was a week of swings, followed by a week of days, then another week of swings, another week of days, then a week of mids:

SMTWTFS
24RDORDO16161616
16RDORDO8888
8RDORDO16161616
16RDORDO8888
8RDORDO24242424
24RDORDO16161616
16RDORDO8888
8RDORDO16161616
16RDORDO8888
8RDORDO24242424
RDORDO1616161616
RDORDO88888
RDORDO1616161616
RDORDO88888
RDORDO2424242424

The RDO shift was done on a ten week basis. So, for any particular set of RDOs we did the above, then we did it again—with the same days off. After the second week of mids (of which we only worked four this time—except when transition from/to weekends—see below) everyone shifted RDOs back one day (see above in the third week). Consequently, if you’d been on Wednesday/Thursday off, you’d back up to Tuesday/Wednesday off. The nice thing about this schedule was the four day week of mids every ten weeks.

Transitioning to or from Saturdays/Sundays off was always complicated by having to avoid working six days in any one week (a statutory requirement, and calculated from Sunday to Saturday). As I recall, the first weekend transitioning in to Saturday/Sunday off wound up being a single RDO (Sunday) however following the next Friday’s shift, eight weeks of Saturdays/Sundays off ensued. Then the transition to Friday/Saturday off similarly involved a short weekend. It all evened out in the end, but you had better enjoy your Saturday/Sundays off because it took more than a year to get back to them.

When I was young and oblivious that wasn’t such a bad schedule, but eventually I found that swing shifts were not my friend. It was easier for me to get up for a day shift than it was to miss out on social time with non-FAA friends while I was on a swing shift. I didn’t mind mids, in fact, later, in Chicago, I wound up working a lot of them (rarely more than three in a row, however), but five at a crack wreaked havoc with the circadian rhythm. Police in many departments get around that problem by running their shifts a month at a time. I can’t imagine working a month of mids.

Other people had their own aforementioned idiosyncracies with shifts which gave rise to an active market in shift trades. We traded shifts somewhat often in Jacksonville, but the Chicago folks were the shift tradingest bunch of people I’ve ever known. Our schedules were posted two months in advance and by the time the current week rolled around in the schedule book, it almost looked like not a single person was on their original assigned shift. Some people actually wound up back on a shift they had traded out of…twice.

But let’s talk about the Chicago schedule for a moment. The Chicago schedule was complicated. It combined the features of a 2-2-1 with a better version of changing RDOs. Instead of the ten week RDO rotation Jacksonville had, Chicago had a seven week rotation. Here’s the template:

SMTWTFS
RDO1515151515RDO
RDO772323RDO15
15151515RDORDO7
7723RDORDO77
724RDORDO151515
15RDORDO77723
24RDO77723RDO

Note that despite attractive features of the schedule—namely four out of seven weeks are essentially four day work weeks between RDOs—in a seven week cycle, one still ends up with fourteen swings, fourteen days, and seven mids—2-2-1.

Another statutory oddity—because working any part of Sunday entitled us to the premium for the entire shift, we had to work 2400-0800 on Sundays and Mondays instead of the regular 2300-0700 shift. It got even sillier because then it was necessary to schedule a couple of 1600-2400s on Saturday and Sunday evenings, which in turn, necessitated a couple of 0800-1600 shifts to cover them the day transition. It always seemed so simple to us—“say” it’s a 2400-0800 shift, but in all other respects act like it’s a regular 2300-0700 shift like all the rest.

Again, because the staffing demand on the mids was lower (usually two troops per area), the overage was apportioned primarily to the day shift, but some day shifts were also moved to transition shifts (Noon-2000, 1300-2100, for example). Those would generally be at the beginning of the week of day shifts. The advantages of this schedule was two Saturday/Sunday off pairs every seven weeks rather than every 14½ months, as with Jacksonville’s.

Other details of scheduling aren’t worth covering—if you didn’t work in that kind of environment, the discussion is meaningless, and if you did work in that kind of environment, the discussion is pointless. I relate the above more in the vein of historical interest—that is, get it in print while I still remember it. Maybe some old ZJX or ZAU crank will see this some day and say, “oh, yeah—I’d forgotten about that.”





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Last updated: 10 December 2011