My Job in a Nutshell……

Whenever I describe my job as an Enroute Air Traffic Controller to a visitor that has no clue what we actually do, I tell them it is like watching a bunch of ants on a paper plate and it is my responsibility to keep the ants from touching. Sounds simple right? Most of the time, it is. When you add in the variables of wind, weather, traffic management, cranky pilots, and human error, the difficulty component increases tenfold.
The first duty priority of an Air Traffic Controller is to separate aircraft and issue safety alerts. The standard separation requirements for the enroute environment are 5 miles and 1000 feet between aircraft flying under instrument flight rules. Five miles and a thousand feet sounds like a lot of space but when aircraft are converging at 900 knots and you have about two minutes to get them separated, it is time to earn your money.
Fortunately, we have several modern tools to assist in separation applications. All of our flight plan information for each aircraft is managed in an electronic list called URET, User Request Evaluation Tool. This flight plan list gives all components of the aircrafts flight plan and predicts potential conflicts between aircraft to aircraft and aircraft to airspace. Prior to URET, the controllers used flight strips for each aircraft. As it is now, it is usually the Radar Associates job to manage the flight plan information and separate aircraft before they enter the airspace and to provide the radar controller with all necessary tools to effectively resolve any other conflicts. URET, as with any other human made computer system, has sometimes serious and critical flaws. When the controllers used flight strips, they got time updates when aircraft would be over a fix and could use that information to resolve conflicts. URET does not give time updates. Information can be put into the host computer through URET and it calculates where it thinks the aircraft should be. The issue however, if an aircraft is proposed to descend, climb, or the information does not get updated by the controllers for whatever reason, the system does not accurately probe the aircraft’s flight path and can miss potential conflicts.
Another effective tool we use in air traffic is Conflict Alert. If for some reason a potential conflict is missed in the URET, an error in judgement is made when climbing or descending an aircraft, or the sector is saturated by shear volume and the conflict is missed, the computer will recognize the issue when the aircraft are two minutes apart and the data blocks will blink to alert the controller so action can be taken to keep the aircraft from losing separation.
The obvious significance of keeping aircraft separated is to prevent the loss of human life. In this case, a lot of human lives. The days it becomes difficult are when there is a line of thunderstorms stretching from Canada to Mexico and the only gap for 500 miles is in two sectors and all the aircraft are trying to funnel through the hole. Despite the efforts of traffic management to keep every plane in the country from proceeding to that gap, the controllers allow the aircraft to deviate until it is through the weather and headed back on course. Those are the days we rely heavily on Conflict Alert because the flight plans do not get the necessary updates when the controllers are too busy keeping the planes from hitting.
The main question asked of controllers is ‘Wow, isn’t that a stressful job?’ My typical smart-assed answer is, ‘No, but I do drink a lot in my off time!’ Truthfully though, to make it through a normal day, the challenge is to fight the boredom and monotony bred from complacency. To make it through the tough, busy days, you remember that on the planes you separate are someones husband, wife, children, parents, and family then imagine it is your own.

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