Decision Making

Controllers, as a group, tend to have above average IQs, and tend to be decisive, cocky, opinionated, self centered, and independent. And that’s on a good day. Seriously, if you analyze those characteristics it should be clear that in air traffic control, those are precisely the traits that need to be employed to be successful (read safe). That is not to say that they’re all assholes (although we had probably more than our share), but you simply couldn’t work traffic with any degree of success if you didn’t have plenty of all of those.

One of the things I used to teach my trainees working inbounds was to decide which order seemed to be the best choice for sequencing and then do what needed to be done to sequence them that way. We used speed control or vectoring, and sometimes both, to implement the sequence. In high altitude, you generally had around 100 miles or so to make the sequence work. In the terminal, most of the sequencing of a single stream had been done by high altitude, but you still might have to mix two streams together or fit a couple from other low altitude sectors into the high stream. Everyone got a chance to play.

I learned from experience (many times) that regardless of how poorly my original plan seemed to be working, it would be about three times as much work (and a lot of attention) to switch two of the flights around. It was better to simply implement more severe measures (another 20 or 30 knots of speed reduction, some vectoring, etc.) than to try and reverse a sequence.

Trainees were reluctant to make their choices, not yet having the experience to know what the tie points were, what carriers would fly fast, how effective prevailing winds might be, etc. That reluctance translated to indecision, which led to lots of experience as related in the preceding paragraph about how hard it is to change the sequence once you had already started implementing it. I never articulated in a catchy phrase, however, the principle. That didn’t come until after I was retired when in a conversation with my wife.

She has a habit of asking me if I want something (sandwich, drink, seconds—it doesn’t matter), and if I tell her “no” she frequently asks if I’m sure. Finally one day I told her about the philosophy I had come to adopt in 30 years of ATC. I told about sequencing inbounds as I related above, and I said, “you learn to make a decision, and make it work.” The corollary to that was that, the decision being made, you accept the consequences of that decision. So, if I said I didn’t want seconds, even if later I might have, er, second thoughts, I’ll stick with not having seconds. Make a decision—make it work.

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Last updated: 20 January 2011