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Unintended Consequences
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Ep. #11, Air Traffic Control: Loss of Separation with Sigrid Ellis

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In episode 11 of Unintended Consequences, Heidi and Kim speak with Sigrid Ellis, an air traffic controller. She unpacks the day-to-day work experience of air traffic controllers and shares insights on how the COVID-19 pandemic introduced new complexities around airspace traffic, airline staffing, and commercial flights.

Sigrid Ellis is an air traffic controller, homeschooling parent, and co-editor of the Hugo-nominated Queers Dig Time Lords and Chicks Dig Comics anthologies.


Heidi Waterhouse: This is Unintended Consequences, I'm Heidi Waterhouse, and today I'm really excited to be interviewing Sigrid Ellis, who is an air traffic controller.

And you may be wondering why what you thought was a technology podcast is actually going someplace completely different, but it turns out that much like all the really coolest conference talks, a lot of other industries have things to teach us and we should be listening.

So Sigrid tell me a little bit about where you are in the air traffic controller space for people who have only ever kind of half watched Pushing Tin while doing something else.

Sigrid Ellis: Okay. Air traffic control is done on a principle I will borrow from sports of zone defense.

Airspace, everything from the ground to 60,000 feet, which is a legal limit of space is divided into three-dimensional chunks.

And each three-dimensional chunk has a person keeping track of it.

And a certain number of aircraft are allowed to transit that airspace in a given period of time.

This covers everything from an approach control, which surrounds a major metropolitan airport, usually from the ground 30 miles out from the ground to 15 or 10 or 20,000 feet to what I do, which is called center control.

We work in buildings located 30 miles outside major metropolitan areas. Pro-tip: that is because of the danger of nuclear Holocaust. It was thought that 30 miles outside would survive a first strike and center control does everything that is not under the auspices of a major metropolitan airports approach control.

So I cover Northern Minnesota and the Dakotas.

I work all the little airports, all of which are international by the way, because of their proximity to Canada.

And I talked to planes landing and taking off from Bemidji, Minnesota and Beaver Falls and Jamestown, North Dakota to aircraft going from LA to Germany, great circle route that takes you right over the code is in Canada, to aircraft box haulers coming from Alaska and the Pacific Rim going to Charlotte and Louisville and the major FedEx and UPS hubs to military training exercises, which are usually done in places where the airspace is not already in heavy use.

So a lot of that is done in say Texas and Arizona and Utah and North Dakota, South Dakota, Northern Minnesota.

So what I do is I go into work. I read my pre duty items.

I go in and I look at the break list and I see who has been in the sector the longest.

And I walk up to them and say "do you want a break?" And they say "yes." I grabbed my headset. I plug it in.

There's a checklist we go down where they tell me everything that's happening in the sector.

I say "I've got it." I sit down and I pick up a work in progress that I do not start and will not see the completion of.

And I work on that work for as long as it's mine.

And I make sure that all aircraft get through my airspace safely in an orderly fashion and as expeditiously as possible.

After a while someone comes up and says "Hey, do you want a break?"

And I say "sure." They plug in, I go down the checklist. They say "I've got it."

I unplug, I put my headset back in its box and I walk out to the break room.

And I dick around on my phone for a little bit. It is a very different type of work and work experience than I believe most people have.

Heidi: I think it is. I think it's really interesting this idea of the sustaining chorus.

There's never a beginning or an end.

There is just a note that is all the planes staying where they need to be and not touching.

And I think that the tone of that chorus probably changed a lot when air traffic changed during the pandemic.

And I know that you were home for most of it.

How did people deal with that drastic change in like very few commercial travel flights, but maybe the same or more packaged flights.

Sigrid: It is interesting. And this ties into a little bit to, how is the workday organized.

For my entire career, which is over 20 years now, it has been a tenant of scheduling work shifts that you can't work the same shift all the time and it's bad for you as a controller, that you will get stale, that you will become accustomed to the ebbs and flows only of that time period.

If you work straight nights or straight overnights, or just the mornings and that to retain all of your capacities as an air traffic controller, you need to work a variety of shifts.

So for that, and also to share the bad shifts out, we cycled through the week we go like night, night and day, day, overnight, or night, night, night, day, day.

Over the pandemic to keep crews from mingling, people worked straight overnight or straight swing shift or straight day shift for 12 months, 14 months.

They only ever saw the same other three or four people. Air traffic was down radically.

So staffing could be down. So the fewer people they had in the building, the better because fewer germs.

So all those people are now back to working the previous norm of shifts.

And it doesn't really seem to have affected anybody's capacity to perform air traffic control duties.

So there is a question now where everyone's going well, do we really have to do the rotating shifts?

Is that absolutely necessary? Would it be possible for people who prefer to have a steady, reliable schedule to have that?

And similarly people over the course of the pandemic, because it was reduced staffing were asked to work more planes at once.

And now that everyone is back in the building, there's a mandate that we are, you can't work more than X percentage of planes for a given airspace.

And there's an understandable frustration I think, with what purpose does this mandate serve?

Is it to ease people back into working unfamiliar times of day and unfamiliar volumes of traffic?

Is it to ease people back because now the military training flights are all going and the general aviation planes are all going the traffic complexity has arisen?

Oh, okay. We could see that.

Is it to arbitrarily justify certain employment numbers to an overseen body?

Maybe, we don't know. So I think the pandemic for air traffic control raised questions very similar to a lot of other industries, which is "do we have to go back to doing it the way we were doing it before? And if so, could someone explain why?"

Heidi: Yeah. That rotating shift thing I think is especially stunning because every piece of science we have about health says that you have to be able to go to sleep at the same time and that moving your schedule like that makes you literally crazy

Sigrid: And if you have to rotate you're supposed to do it the other direction than what we do.

You're supposed to start early and move later through the day.

And we literally do it the worst possible way for physical and mental health. And we've done it for my entire career.

Kim Harrison: Before we talk about what we would do after pandemic, I'm kind of questioning before pandemic.

You've been doing that for many, many years and we know that it's not good for you.

How do people make that work? How do you get yourself into that and sustain that?

Heidi: Someone else does your childcare.

Sigrid: Well, that's a big part of it.

There's actually something I shouldn't say right here, which is that there are a number of medical conditions that air traffic controllers are not allowed to have.

Every year we have to pass an FAA flight physical.

We must give the FAA permission to have access to all of our health records.

If we don't report a medication or a condition to the flight surgeon, it's grounds for employment action or termination, depending on the severity of what we have hidden.

And there's a great many medications you're not allowed to take in there because they have side effects that are undesirable like sleepiness, or because it is a medication that is also used for a condition that might be cause for you losing your medical clearance.

For instance, there's an over the counter allergy medication. I can't read which one it is, which is also used heavily to control asthma.

And you're not allowed to take that allergy medication for allergies because you could be lying and you could have really bad asthma and taking this medication.

So the medication is forbidden, is it Zyrtec?

It might be Zyrtec because if you have asthma, you're required to disclose that to the flight surgeons' office.

So anyway, there's a whole number of conditions that air traffic controllers are not allowed to have, including a great many mental health conditions.

So air traffic controllers, to help manage their stress by and large, don't go talk to doctors because what if the doctor found something that they would have to report to the flight surgeon?

Don't try to get treatment for mental and emotional health problems, because what if it ends up being a condition that would medically be disqualifying?

So caffeine is mainly how air traffic controllers cope with not getting enough sleep.

Heidi: That makes sense.

Sigrid: Because there aren't a lot of options.

Heidi: And just so everybody's aware it's the same set of rules as for commercial pilots.

It's one-to-one either driving the planes in the air or from the ground. You have to have the same level.

Sigrid: Yep. I know that aircraft controllers as a population, there's nothing universal.

Everybody makes their own decisions.

But a lot of times what people do is they just tried to soldier through until they can retire.

We can retire very early. You have to be hired before you're 30.

You must retire by age 57, you are able to retire after 25 years in service.

So I am going to be eligible when I'm 49.

Heidi: And that sounds like a pretty sweet deal, except that's a lot of weird sleep.

I think the flight surgeon thing is an interesting way to look at the unintended consequence.

They want healthy, sane people administering this extremely important task, but the way that they enforce it actually encourages people to hide conditions that would be disqualifying.

And we don't have a good solution for that yet, or we'd be using it.

But I think it's a thing to think about in all of our jobs.

Are we testing and enforcing on the right thing? Are we actually getting the result we want with this enforcement?

Kim: Yeah. In that direction, it reminds me a lot of blameless culture.

So that's something that comes up often in tech is how do you create a safe space for people to feel comfortable talking about things that would otherwise, do you want to throw yourself under the bus?

Do you want to get yourself in trouble or do you actually want to solve the thing and get to the root cause and make that easier for everybody?

Sigrid: I have to say, overall, air traffic control as air traffic control, not as the meta systems that surround it and bureaucracy, but as our traffic control, it's very good at that.

About, I don't know, 10 years ago, we adopted a system that the pilots professional organization had started of voluntary reporting, which is that if you make a mistake and you voluntarily reported, there are almost no consequences.

If you've made a mistake and you don't volunteer or report it and it's discovered at a later point, there can be professional consequences.

Heidi: I think I've done that parenting.

Sigrid: It's very effective because there are a wide range of mistakes that can be made in air traffic control, which are not safety threatening.

The big mistake is always an uncontrolled loss of separation, but there's a whole host of minor mistakes that can be made.

And if you voluntarily report all of them, and then what the system does is it looks for patterns.

The ATSAP-- The anecdotes and data reports have all their personal information removed.

And they are gone over by teams at a local and regional level to look for patterns.

If we're getting a lot of ATSAP on this same error that is occurring, there is probably a systemic problem. And we need to look at that and figure out what is the systemic problem? Do we need a frequency relay tower because part of the problem is that we have poor communications with the aircraft in this one little spot?

Do we need to adjust a boundary between two sectors because, the way the planes are flying now is not the way they were flying 30 years ago when the boundary was put in place and it's causing coordination errors?

Do we need to rewrite the standard operating procedure, SOP papers between two facilities because it's poorly worded and each facility thinks it means a different thing?

What is the system error?

Heidi: So not the people.

Sigrid: Not the people.

Heidi: But the system failing the people. So you said loss of separation error.

I believe that when you're talking about it over coffee, you call that a deal.

Will you explain what the actual error is?

Sigrid: Air traffic controllers at tower approach and center have different what's called separation standard.

Separation standard is how far apart the plans are supposed to be from each other.

In a center environment, which is what I work.

Planes must be a 1000 feet vertically or five miles horizontally separated from each other.

And that sounds like a huge amount of space and it is.

And the reason it is, is that in a center environment we are using something called mosaic radar.

Where our screen is showing us the little blip that is the plane is located, has a margin of error due to the way the radar feeds from multiple spots in the country and including satellite information are being processed and generated and displayed for us.

And that means that within that 2000 foot high, five mile wide chunk of air, the plane could be 600 feet vertically, either direction, or it could be up to like a mile and a half horizontally in some direction.

And you start thinking, okay, if one plane is supposed to be at 8,000 feet and it's actually at 8,300 feet, and another plane is supposed to be at 9,000 feet and it's actually at 8,700 feet, oh, thank God.

I still have 400 feet between those planes, they're going to miss.

So that's why we have the thousand feet. And it's the same horizontally.

If the plane is supposed to be here and it's a mile and a half to the East, and this plane is supposed to be there, but it's a mile and a half to the West.

Those planes are still nowhere near each other.

Margin of error and redundancy are incredibly important in the job. That is what standards of separation mean.

So the biggest error that you can make is a loss of separation.

That can mean that the planes are still 4.9 miles apart, but it's still a loss of separation.

And I can come back to that in training because that gets really emotionally, mentally interesting.

We call that having a deal as an oh, so-and-so had a deal.

We also, in the way of, I think most jobs that have very important stakes have a number of less for-the-public ways of referring to it.

But we can just, we can just move past that.

But honestly, I honestly can't remember the last time somebody I was working with had a deal.

It's been a long time. And we hear about the ones where the planes actually touch.

The ones where the plants actually touch make the news, but that's a very small percent. Deals happen all the time.

Particularly as you get into approach controls.

Approach controls are supposed to keep planes three miles apart because they have a different radar presentation in the margin of error is smaller so they don't need that extra space.

Heidi: I think when we're translating this for a tech audience, you can think of this as an error budget.

You can have this many problems and you're still okay.

That's not really an error budget. It's an allowable exception.

But I think it's really interesting to me that we have the same problem presented in a bunch of different ways.

So speaking of mistake, Sigrid, tell me about a mistake that you made this week.

Sigrid: In my job or in my life?

Heidi: In your life.

Sigrid: Oh, the mistake that I made in my life most recently is this morning.

We've been planning, turning on the air conditioning since it's getting hot, we're going to turn around lunchtime.

So Jennifer and I said to each other, well, we can just turn on the AC.

I'm like "yeah, it's going to get warm let's turn it on" and we said to our housemate "Hey, we're turning the air conditioner on."

And he said "I'm making lunch." And we said, "okay." he said "Well, we have to turn on the window unit upstairs."

We have central air. There's also a window unit upstairs.

It doesn't matter. Except it does for this story.

We said "Okay, well you can cook. Someone will turn the air conditioner on."

He said "It's not that simple." Okay. He said "It's like a three-minute process."

"Oh, okay. Well, should we turn the air conditioner back off?"

And he's like "no, no, I'll just go do it."

And he ran up the stairs. It turns out that the window fans that he has in the window when the air conditioning is not running as in the same location as the air conditioner.

So to put the window unit in requires taking out the fan, getting the window unit into the window and then rearranging his outlets because the AC pulls more power than the fan.

And so the cords he asked to use and the plugs he has to use, it's a different situation.

I didn't know that. Jennifer didn't know that. Our children did not know that.

Why would we know that? It's in Nathan's bedroom. He's the only person who ever handles it.

However, the mistake was not saying to the house, "Hey, is now a good time to turn on the air conditioner?"

Because other people's lives are always more complicated than you think they are and there's always stuff that they just handle that you never know until you trip on it.

Heidi: Yes.

Kim: It was on a deep level.

Sigrid: So you never know when the thing that you think is just a you problem is actually an everyone problem

Kim: And taking for granted all the little things other people do.

And the fact that they do it so well, you don't even notice it. It's just always work.

Sigrid: Yeah. Why would anyone know that? Now we know and in the future.

So the change that we have put into our household operation as a result of this error was to ask everyone is now a good time to turn on the air conditioner rather than just saying "Hey, we're turning the air conditioning on."

Which we've been doing for four years without knowing that asking would have been better.

Kim: Yeah.

Heidi: Also it makes me just want to optimize that process, but it's a process that works. So maybe we shouldn't tinker with it.

Sigrid: I could go up and start barging in like a new supervisor in an area saying "Well, why do you do it this way? Have you considered doing it this other way?"

Which I just thought of and then have the person go "How dumb do you think I am? Of course, I considered doing it that way. But here are all the things you don't know that means that this is why we're doing it this way."

Heidi: Yeah.

Sigrid: So I'm going to trust the expert on his bedroom electrical system and say "Sure, I'll just ask you."

Heidi: That seems like a great communication tweak that will hopefully result in fewer post-incident discussions.

When you do a family post-incident discussion, do you have rules about how that happens and are they informed by your training?

Sigrid: Incident discussions in my household are informed by my training, not because we've all sat down and agreed that it was a good idea because I am me and that is how I know how to do it.

So I am always bringing that to any post-incident discussion I am having, whether it be in my household or a science fiction convention, or a friend group.

The air traffic control post incident discussion is very focused.

What happened and what can we do to not replicate that in the future?

There's very little given to repair or reparation or restoration because that moment in time is gone.

It happened, a thing happened. What are we going to do next time?

It's very goal-focused which is not always the most useful way of handling familial mishigas.

Heidi: I mean, there's utility and then there's a relationship building and it's frequently a balance.

Sigrid: So I try to keep that in mind when we're actually having like household or friend group discussions.

That the relationship is also a goal and the processes for fulfilling that goal are different than the processes for making sure that no one put their shoes on their stool in the kitchen again.

Heidi: I'd say who does that? But I also have teenagers.

Another ATC question. We are talking about the difference between utility and relationship building.

I know that air traffic controllers are part of a union.

How does that interaction play out in the rules that you have to follow and the push and pull of employment?

Because I think a lot of people in tech sort of idealize the union and it's more complicated than that.

Sigrid: The union is instrumental in negotiating our contract every, I actually don't know how many years it is five years, seven years?

I don't know. At a national level, the union does that.

At a local level, what the union does is it means that in any conversation you have with management about your performance, you have someone in the room with you, if you so desire to ensure that your rights are not infringed.

And that is incredibly important in any conversation between labor and management, the first level supervisors that we work with day in day out can be very nice people.

And they are with us on the floor and they are doing the work, but they're still not us.

They're still not air traffic controllers. They used to be. Then they became management.

Heidi: It's like molting, you're now a different form.

Sigrid: Yeah. The union does a lot of very quiet, good.

A union representative is entitled to be present in all of the meetings about upcoming changes to how we do air traffic at the local level.

They're entitled to be present in meetings about the process by which we are going to bid our schedules, the process by which we are going to discuss the new staffing level requirements.

They are there for conversations about break room facilities and where the handicapped spaces in the parking lot are going to be put in.

Is it going to impact the motorcycles who park and can the motorcycles move?

I mean, there's all the little conversations that any organization need to have about how are we going to physically and concretely perform the tasks necessary for the goal that we have all agreed is important. The union is there to say "Hey, let's think about how this affects individual air traffic controllers." And that's incredibly important.

The slightly mixed side is that the union also is required to take the part of, and provide guidance to people who are attempting to manipulate the system and look for the loopholes.

And we all dislike that we're like, but that person's a jerk.

And they're manipulating the training program to get a transfer to Hawaii.

And they've told everyone that, so can't we just stop defending them, is it necessary?

And the answer is yes, because the union does not pick and choose who gets to use this resources.

If you're a union member, it will work for you. And that is mostly great.

And I have been a union member since I hired on.

Heidi: That seems great. And does the union do like bigger level advocacy or are they going to weigh in on this discussion about hours and staffing?

Like, do we need to go back to the way?

Sigrid: Yeah.

I have an area union rep and then there's a facility union rep, and we got emails from the facility union rep saying "Hey, here's where we're at in that conversation and I will let you know when I know anything, and here's the steps I'm going to take over the next week and a half and who I'm going to talk to and try to get answers for you, and I'll keep you posted."

Heidi: That seems awesome. I'm sure there are downsides, but I'm trying to think of them right now.

Sigrid: Well, a lot of people think the money is a downside. You have to pay union dues.

Heidi: Are they more than 5% of your check?

Sigrid: God no.

Heidi: All right then, whatever.

Sigrid: I think they're nominal, but some people think that's a downside.

Another thing that people think is the downside is at a national level we have very little individual control over what our union representation in Washington says to Congress.

We tell our area rep, and our area reps all get together and tell our facility rep.

And then the facility reps get together and tell the regional reps and the regional reps get together and tell the national reps.

The national rep goes and testifies before Congress.

But like all long distance representational bodies, what he says to Congress, we read about in the paper.

So, okay. Some people really resent that and don't want to be a part of that.

I'm like, okay, that's a choice.

However, at my facility, union rep is the highest has been in my entire career.

It's really much higher than it has been in 25 years.

Heidi: That's cool.

Sigrid: The youth, I think they like organized labor.

Heidi: I mean, I am for it, but it's complicated.