Monday, April 25, 2011

Program will put air traffic controllers back in the skies

Washington  A program that puts air traffic controllers in the cockpit to view life "on the other side of the frequency" is being resurrected almost a decade after it was killed by Sept. 11 security measures.
The program allows controllers to fly in the cockpit "jump seat" of commercial jets so they can become acquainted with the pilots' workloads and responsibilities, and ultimately become better at their own.
FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, a former airline pilot, said the program benefits both controllers and pilots.
"It's a two-way dialogue. And it helps both parties understand some of the work environment that the other is operating in," Babbitt said.
Previously known as "fam trips," short for "familiarization trips," the program and the name both were casualties of September 11. The terrorist attacks led to barricaded cockpit doors and to strict protocols on who could pass through them. And the term "FAM" is now used by the Federal Air Marshal Service.
In the decade that has elapsed, thousands of new employees have joined the ranks of controllers, meaning that fully one-third of the work force has never had the chance to ride in an airline cockpit.
"I think it's an outstanding idea," said Derek Bittman, a controller at an FAA facility in Atlanta.
"We tell the airplanes what to do, and they make it work. And if controllers got back in the cockpit, we would understand what it takes to make that request work," Bittman said.
Officials say the program has minimal costs because the controllers sit on a "nonrevenue" fold-down seat behind the pilots. The program will be voluntary, and will be open to controllers who meet certain minimum work experience requirements.
Union chief Paul Rinaldi, who participated in the former program, said he found the experience valuable, and it helped him understand when pilots have the busiest workloads and how to better communicate with them.
Babbitt said the Transportation Security Administration has approved the program, and that he expects it to begin in the coming weeks.
The TSA said it has worked with the FAA on "a tightly controlled, restricted access program."
"Air traffic controllers who ride in the cockpit as part of training are vetted and are thoroughly screened at the checkpoint," the TSA said. "From a security standpoint, it makes sense to ensure that air traffic controllers have a clear understanding of what happens inside the cockpit."

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