to get to the air-traffic-control tower at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, you have to walk through Concourse D in the Central Terminal, past the shiny shops and fat pretzels and premium brews, into and back out of streams of travelers yammering wirelessly at wives, lovers, brokers. You come to a thick steel battleship-gray door, shove it open with your hip. Step inside. You are now in…Leningrad? Bucharest? Cinder-block walls washed in dingy fluorescent light, a cramped elevator, slow and rickety, up to the tenth floor—Sorry it’s so cold, but this thermostat hasn’t worked for shit in years—through another gray door, up a knee-creaking set of concrete stairs: Welcome to the LaGuardia tower cab. Would you like a doughnut? Check out the view! The skyline demands all of you first, Manhattan spreading unobstructed like a mural written on the bottom of the sky. Airplanes everywhere, white, silver crawling. Rikers Island sits alone on the upwind leg of runway 31. Shea Stadium, on the opposite end, is mere skeleton and guts, just now on a crisp fall morning coming undone. You don’t see a view like this every day. Never mind the furniture, the duct-taped Archie Bunker couches in the break room, the ragged fold-up tables and the ancient, empty vending machine advertising Mike and Ike for twenty-five cents. Never mind the missing ceiling tiles, the warped paneling, the chipped Formica, the spectacular curls of peeling paint. Taped to the handset of a red phone is a sign reading black phone. Some of the computer equipment brings to mind the days of Tandy and Heathkit. Some sections of the control console bring to mind the golden age of telephone operators wearing pointy bras. For a long time the roof here leaked so badly they had giant diapers hanging, tarps tacked from here to there to catch the water; a garden hose took the water down a flight of stairs to a janitor’s sink. Sometimes the bathroom plumbing goes, and when it goes it really goes; some controllers keep an extra shirt in their lockers in case of explosion. (Others have learned to flush with their foot and duck.) But check out the view! people here say with pride intent or not intent on masking the obvious. Yeah, this place is a dump. This is the center of the universe, a tower serving 23 million passengers a year as they fly in and out of the most congested airspace in the world, and yeah, this tower, built in 1962, one of the oldest in America, is a dump.
The FAA promises a new tower next year. You can see it emerging next to the parking garage. It’s right there. Some LaGuardia controllers remember hearing about a-new-tower-next-year as far back as 1984. “Next year.” “Next year.” “Why fix up the old tower when a new tower is coming next year?” A quarter of a century of no next-years is enough to make any worker with a spare shirt in his locker in case of toilet explosion feel…skeptical.
Cali loves it here; it sounds crazy at first, but he does love it. (In fact, most LaGuardia controllers kiss the mud-colored carpet tile they walk on. They could tell you about the alternatives. Stick around and they’ll tell you about the alternatives.) At the moment, Cali is on Ground. It’s 8:20 a.m. on a Friday, rush hour, every forty-five seconds another airplane landing, then another launching, then another landing, relentless as throbs of a throbbing headache. Twenty-six departures wait in line, all stoked up, backed up on Bravo clear down to Foxtrot. Twelve controllers maneuver the chaos. Brian is on Local, clearing for takeoff and clearing for landing, while Cali, on Ground, is managing the taxiways—a constantly moving puzzle of airplanes loaded with thousands and thousands of souls. Of all the positions, almost everyone here loves Ground most, because it’s so fucking complicated. LaGuardia Airport is tiny compared to its sleek modern counterparts, like Atlanta or Denver with their endless parallel runways spread over thousands of acres. LaGuardia is jammed into just 680 urban acres; taxiways are tight; runways intersect; you can’t launch a departure until the arrival on the other runway crosses the threshold or else the airplanes will…collide. There’s also water on three sides to avoid falling into. There’s also adjacent behemoths Newark and (especially) Kennedy airports, each launching and landing one plane every thirty-six seconds, constantly breathing down LaGuardia’s neck. Kennedy, just twelve miles south, is obnoxious. If Kennedy goes into delays, it’s LaGuardia that has to change its runway configuration to help Kennedy get out of delays. All in all, the complications make this place so much more awesome than a place like Atlanta or Denver. This, anyway, is the LaGuardia mystique. This dump rocks.
Cali sends a Dash 8 into the departure lineup, feels the thunder of a launching 757 soaring past the tower windows. He’s keeping an eye on an Embraer jet and gate Charlie 9. He has a lot on his mind. His first name is Tom, but the guys call him Cali. He plays hockey. He used to be a short-order cook. He is proud of his gardens, especially his enormous orange canna lilies. His hair is buzzed, and his eyes are smart, and his nose is prominent, and his accent is Long Island. His movements are impatient gesticulation, yadda yadda yadda. His headset cord is long, enabling him to wander practically the full circle of the cramped tower cab. Like nearly everyone else here, he stands when he’s on position. It’s not a sit-down kind of job. “Swivelheads” is a nickname for tower controllers, because they’re constantly scanning in all directions, like owls.
The 757 that just launched is headed to Chicago. That flight, like every commercial departure, has more to it than the commonly recognized components of pilot, flight plan, and fuel. Every flight has people watching over it, guardian-angel style, every step of the way. For example, shortly after Brian launched the 757, he handed it off, via radio, to a controller fifteen miles away at the Terminal Radio Approach Control (TRACON) in Westbury, Long Island, where it showed up as a blip on a radarscope. The 757 now becomes the charge of the TRACON controller, who guides it as high as 17,000 feet. At that point, it is handed off to yet another controller, this one at the Air Route Traffic Control Center in Islip, New York, where it shows up as a green blip on that controller’s radarscope. Centers are spread out like a net across the United States, twenty-two in all, each filled with controllers watching, babysitting, passing off blips to one another. The New York Center controller, for example, will guide the 757 west and eventually pass it off to a controller at the Cleveland Center, who will guide it further west and pass it off to the Indianapolis Center, who will likewise guide it and pass it off to the Chicago Center. As it nears its destination, the 757 will descend, get handed to the Chicago TRACON and then to a controller at the Chicago O’Hare tower, who will clear it for landing and steer it to its gate.
Nearly 30,000 commercial flights thus zoom across America’s skies each day and never bash into each other. The “modern” air-traffic-control system, and the FAA itself, was created in the aftermath of one of the most dramatic commercial midair bashes, way back in 1956. On a warm summer morning, United flight 718 from Los Angeles was headed to Chicago, and TWA flight 2 from Los Angeles was headed to Kansas City. Over the Grand Canyon they met, at 21,000 feet, inside a cumulus cloud. After impact, both planes plunged into the canyon, taking 128 people to a most violent death.
You don’t hear of accidents like that anymore. The FAA employs 15,000 controllers who make sure that midair collisions and a host of other horrible things don’t happen. Controllers are choreographers, deciders, big-picture people with a knack for making split-second decisions based on physics, geometry, aerodynamics, and God-given guts. They’re perched above runways in little glass rooms and hidden in radar rooms, physically cut off from us and yet completely connected, or so we hope. We’d know them better if they did a bad job. The better they are, the more invisible they become.
Hidden, too, is the cloud of anguish under which they work. There is bitterness and resentment, feuding and infighting. Here is a workforce in a festering standoff with management, again and again, and now again. The story of air traffic in America today is one of growing pockets of exhausted controllers working with ancient equipment in understaffed facilities. The stakes go well beyond the inconvenience of airport delays, which are getting famously worse. The stakes are millions of passengers going from here to there: the safe handling of an utterly vulnerable public.
At the moment, Cali is “plugged-in.” He’s on his tiptoes, getting a better view. Plugged-in is what a controller calls it when he’s on position. Plugging in means plugging out of the rest of your problems, or those of your union or a bunch of blabbermouth politicians in Washington, D.C. Plugged-in is its own dimension, hypertime and hyperthought and hyperawareness of airplanes loaded with people and all their problems. Cali glances down Zulu taxiway. Is it clear? He’s probably going to need it. He’s seeing four or five or twelve steps ahead.
What happens out on the tarmac is everybody wants to be first. Everybody wants to be next. Everybody wants to go. A 737 has just landed, touching down on runway 31. Destination! Destination means I’m done. Get-off-the-plane. Shake the wrinkles off your overcoat and march on bloated feet into the next fragment of your day. Mentally, all the passengers on the 737 play out the scenario even as they sit with their seat belts still obediently buckled, tapping their tappy fingers while the plane taxis toward its assigned gate, Charlie 9.
But Charlie 9 is occupied, an Airbus taking forever to board. A whole different horde of passengers who want to be first, next, go. Shifting, settling in, folding overcoats, claiming elbow room, all the passengers on the Airbus play out a scenario of getting somewhere on time, or late.
“Move!” thinks the pilot of the 737.
“Hurry!” thinks the pilot of the Airbus.
“Get me out of here!” thinks everybody all at once.
Cali knows the story, over and over again the same me-first story no matter whose head he gets inside. Me first! There is only so much a controller working Ground can do. Cali shoots the 737 down toward Zulu. “Bravoshordazulu” he says, machine-gun fast, into his headset. Not “Taxi by Bravo and hold short of Zulu” but “Bravoshordazulu.” The pilot hears Cali’s command, thinks Fuck. Zulu is nowhere near Charlie 9. Is this dipshit going to hold us all the way down there by Shea Stadium until our gate is cleared? No, Cali’s just moving the 737 out of the way. He’s got a departing Dash 8 he’s rolling up Alpha (me first!), and he’s got another arrival, an MD-80 to roll Bravoshordamike (me first!), and he needs to do what he can to help Brian, next to him on Local, launch a twofer (two departures for one arrival) if LaGuardia has any hope of getting out of delays. Cali is seeing all of this at once, a matrix of decisions hurling without apology toward the threshold of another matrix of decisions and another and in an instant another. It’s overdrive for even the most practiced brain, all those variables, all those planes, all those souls, all that responsibility, no chance of saying “Fuck it!” and walking away, no ghost of a chance at all of that until, finally, after about an hour, a replacement controller steps in and you plug out, go downstairs for about thirty minutes to the break room for some crackers or an egg sandwich from the concourse, give the brain a chance to empty, exhale, recharge.
Cali is the sort of person to constantly ask himself, “Well, how would I feel?” It guides him through his decisions. The last thing a passenger wants to feel after landing in an airplane, he knows, is the feeling of sitting on the tarmac. But I have arrived at my destination. Why am I not moving on with my day? So Cali won’t just park the 737 down at Zulu while it waits for its gate. If at all possible, he’ll keep the plane moving on the tarmac. He will pause it at Juliet, inch along, then hold for a moment at Lima. “Give the passengers the illusion of progress.” That’s his motto. It gives the people hope.
He turns the 737 up Alpha, tries to swing it so it arrives at Charlie 9 the second the gate becomes available. He nails it, thinks yessss.
Another controller might not have bothered with all that. Another controller might have just dumped the 737 down at Zulu, just left all those passengers stranded down there, hopeless and forlorn. To do it better doesn’t matter in the scheme of things, doesn’t get anyone anywhere any faster, does nothing to help LaGuardia’s reputation as one of the world’s most delayed airports. It’s not heroic. It’s not avoiding a midair collision. It’s certainly not landing an Airbus A320 on the Hudson. It’s just 120 passengers feeling slightly less awful about being stuck in an airplane. A little bit of humanity. A little bit of love. What of it?
early last summer, when I first visited the people at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) union offices in Washington, D.C., to inquire about meeting some controllers, they assumed I was there to talk about misery. Did I want to understand why controllers were so miserable? In fact, my driving curiosity was about the work and not the mood of controllers. They said it would be difficult to separate the two.
They whispered a strategy for dealing with the FAA, which they spoke of as if it were shrouded in Kremlin-style inscrutability. Say this and don’t say that. I would have to go through the FAA if I wanted to get access to a facility, and I would have to be very careful about how I asked. The FAA had a reputation for granting precious few such requests, and it probably wouldn’t grant this one. Try this and don’t try that.
When I went down 14th Street and talked to the people at the FAA about meeting some controllers, they assumed I was there to talk about misery. Had I spoken to anyone at NATCA? What did they say? They wanted to squelch rumors. They spoke of the union as if it were a bunch of bratty little girls throwing fits for a candy fix. They handed me a handsome four-color glossy report proving that controllers were happy, or if they weren’t, they should be. Everything is fine. Don’t panic. Everything is under control.
When moving between the union and the FAA, it is easy to feel like the only grown-up in the neighborhood.
At issue is a labor shortage. Air-traffic controllers are retiring at a rate of nearly 1,000 a year. A shriveling workforce, ever-increasing air traffic—somebody has to guide all those airplanes. You guys have to suck it up, the FAA says to the controllers. Work more hours, take fewer breaks—work six-day weeks if you have to. Yeah, you have to. Six-day workweeks are now the norm at the nation’s busiest radar facilities, which are notoriously hard to staff. The fact that everyone saw this crunch coming long ago, and had been warning about it for years, makes the union nuts. Do the math. Controllers have to retire at 56. Most experienced controllers were hired in the early 1980s after the then union went on strike and President Reagan famously fired their asses. Most of the people brought aboard back then are now in their fifties and being booted out the door. And so there’s been a surge in controller retirements—nearly half the workforce will become eligible for retirement in the next three years. We need more controllers! The union has been saying it for years. Our guys are falling apart here! They’re gonna start making mistakes if you don’t give them a break! Why won’t you hire more controllers? It’s not a simple task. Training takes years. We need more controllers in the pipeline!
The FAA acted, finally, in 2006. This was in the wake of failed contract negotiations. Forget it, they said. Here’s your new contract. Take it or leave it. The union took it, sort of. The union refuses to use the word contract when referring to the “imposed work rules” controllers now work under. Among the 2006 changes: a salary freeze and a two-band pay scale. All new controllers would be brought in at as much as 30 percent less than those hired before the imposed work rules. A certified controller just starting out at LaGuardia tower now, for example, makes about $63,000; under the old rules, he would have started at around $93,000.
And so it was at bargain prices that the FAA finally started hiring like gangbusters in 2006. The plan is to bring aboard nearly 17,000 controllers in the next decade. Finding all those warm bodies is an issue. Gone are the days when controllers were expected to have college degrees. Now people can walk in off the street—McDonald’s or Piercing Pagoda or carnival washouts. Once hired, a recruit attends the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City for three months and then gets stationed at a tower or a TRACON or a Center, where one of the already overworked controllers trains him on each position. Gone are the days when training to become fully certified at the nations’ toughest facilities can take up to five years; new recruits are now fast-tracked in as little as two.
The union fears the worst. Is anyone listening? The union says America’s skies are not safe if its controllers are exhausted, miserable, overworked, resentful, or inadequately schooled. The union says, Please, everybody, please remember what’s at stake. The union says it’s only a matter of time.
Oh, relax! says the FAA, citing stellar safety records and accusing the union of trying to whip the flying public into a fear frenzy to get them to support the union’s whiny demands for a real contract.
Say this and don’t say that. Try this and don’t try that. Who did you talk to and what did he say?
After months of deliberation, the FAA said okay, I could come into one of their facilities; they would pick one for me. The union was pleased—finally, maybe the real story of controllers would get some attention—but said the FAA would probably offer some little Podunk place with little traffic and little misery. A place that would show off some jazzy simulator or something that would make the FAA look good.
Finally, the FAA offered LaGuardia tower. The union said, “Really?” and “That’s a good one.” Then they told me that controllers could get fired if they dared to speak the truth about how miserable they were, so I’d better take that into consideration. By the time I got to LaGuardia, I was imagining scared rats hunkering in corners of a cage.
but of course, that isn’t what I have found. I have found Cali and Brian, Lars and Eric, Tim, Andy, Joe, Franklin, Camille, and the rest of the C team, one of three groups of twelve controllers who man the tower twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. There is little time here for pouting. Brian is my assigned guide. He is a compact man with ruddy skin and sharp blue eyes and a fatherly earnestness. Each day he brings a different coffee mug to work, on each mug a different photo of his four kids. “To remind myself why I’m doing this,” he says. He does not appear even a tiny bit miserable, and neither, for the most part, does the rest of the C team. Joe, the (nonunion) supervisor, is distinguished from the rest of the (union) group only in that he wears a tie. He also wears a lanyard covered with pins: Snoopy, the logo from the ’70s band Yes, a shamrock, a pink ribbon for breast-cancer awareness he has been wearing ever since one of the guys’ wives was diagnosed.
The tower conditions, to be sure, are laughable. The plumbing, the leaks, the tired equipment. Most people, if they saw this, would not feel encouraged.
Controllers here, as in a lot of towers, still use “strips.” Strips are pieces of pale green paper with flight data written on them—one strip for each departing and each arriving flight. Franklin, a happy old man, sits Geppetto-style in the corner, printing out the strips. At his side is a big white plastic bucket, the kind you salvage after home-remodeling projects, filled with plastic strip holders. Strip holders look like the trays you put Scrabble tiles on. Franklin carefully threads each strip into its own little holder, hands them down to the guys working traffic. The guys slide the strips around in the holders to indicate things: A third out (or so) means you’ve contacted a pilot, half out (or so) means a plane is ready to launch, strips balanced over the console like diving boards mean something else. When they clear for takeoff, they slide the strip all the way out, stamp it with an old-timer time stamper—bonk!—then pitch the empty strip holder—clunk!—into another white bucket. Bonk. Clunk! Bonk. Clunk! The rhythm gets hypnotic after a while. You can close your eyes and tell how busy LaGuardia Airport is just by the bonk and the clunk. It is a sound that makes you question what century you are, in fact, in.
“I don’t quite know how to tell you this,” I say to Brian one day. “They have computers that can do this sort of job for you.” He looks at me. His eyes are all trust and innocence. I say even the local library long ago figured out how to ditch the card catalog. He nods. “We like the strips,” he says. Short-term memory is almost always maxed out. If you can’t remember what you told this pilot six commands ago or that pilot three commands ago, you can glance at the strips and know the story in an instant.
As for the rest of the equipment, Brian refers me to Lars, a controller with a computer-geek bent who can’t help himself from desperately trying to keep the tower from suffering a complete analog collapse.
“Don’t even get me started,” says Lars, when I ask him about the odd assortment of computer equipment, the whole Commodore 64 vibe. He’s a lanky man with a long, rubbery face topped with a shock of sandy blond hair. After many sighs and shakes of his head, he finally finds words. “It’s-such-a-mess.” He says the problem with the computers in the tower is that nothing matches, nothing is integrated, every piece of software comes with a dedicated monitor, it’s a fucking monitor farm in here. “A Unix thing here, Windows-based stuff here, stand-alone stuff here. Some contractor talked somebody in the government into buying it, you know. You can smell the backroom deals going around. It’s just…no big picture. No big picture. It drives me absolutely nuts.”
I ask about the red phone labeled black phone.
“Standard operating procedure,” Lars says. “The book says use the black phone, but—”
“Oh, that phone doesn’t work,” a controller says to him.
“It’s been broken since I started training.”
“The black phone?”
“Not the black red phone.”
“No, the black phone.”
“Not the red phone that’s black?”
“There used to be a black phone that didn’t work.”
I stand and look at them, blinking confusion and worry.
“Look,” Joe says to me, “the red black phone calls the police garage, like for a medical emergency, someone needs paramedics at the gate, whereas the other red phone is, okay, the airplane is coming in with minimum fuel, can crash or whatever—the real red phone. Then the tan phone is the Queens fire department.”
“That’s the one that doesn’t work. The tan phone.”
For the sake of adventure, Brian has asked the crew if they’d like to go out after work for some beer and good times. So after work we go. Brian has arranged for Phil to be the designated driver, and seven of us ride in Brian’s silver minivan to a Holiday Inn in Queens.
“So this is how air-traffic controllers party?” I say in the van, all of us sitting up good and straight with our seat belts on.
“We are so fucking responsible,” says Cali.
I tell him it’s actually very encouraging to learn that the people in charge of keeping all those airplanes from bashing into each other are dependable geeks in reasonably good moods. “Word down at headquarters is that you folks are miserable,” I say.
“Oh, so you’ve been talking to NATCA,” Lars says. The van erupts with laughter. They themselves are union members, but not “that kind.” Not, that is, the hard-core kind that shoots itself in the foot by whining all the time. They tell stories blasting management and the union, blaming both for keeping this war going—especially at the TRACON. They tell of a union guy having a beer with a manager in a bar; another union guy walks in, sees this, you can’t drink with a manager; they almost come to blows. A union guy gets promoted to management—crosses over!—and the other union guys key his car in the parking lot. Management plans to do a Thanksgiving turkey at the TRACON until the union hears about it: You can’t do that! Nobody eats turkey with management.
“A Thanksgiving turkey at the New York TRACON, are you shitting me?”
“That’s what I heard.”
“Like the Pilgrims and the Indians are going to sit down and eat together, are you shitting me?”
“That’s what I heard.”
If there are hot spots of controller misery in America, the New York TRACON is, they say, among the hottest. They know this because many of them used to work there.
“It’s two and a half years of my life I’ll never get back.”
“I got out. I escaped. I survived.”
“You sell your soul to work there.”
“They offered bonus money, like $75,000, to get people to work there, and still they can’t staff the place.”
“A black hole.”
“A snake pit.”
“You can’t get out.”
no sign announces the New York TRACON, a two-story ash white warehouse beneath a tower with antennae and satellite dishes sticking out like whiskers. The building is surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and is policed twenty-four hours a day by at least one remarkably gloomy security cop in a guard shack. Tall stacks spew dark stuff from a recycling plant on the other side of the parking lot. It is not a place that welcomes journalists—not for a long time now. I get in because Brian makes some calls. I feel an uncomfortable duty to be polite, like he’s taking me to his creepy, crazy uncle’s house and neither of us knows each other well enough to say, “Whew. Creepy.”
Upstairs is where the action is: a windowless gymnasium-sized room, dark as night, sectioned off into sectors, each with lanes of glowing radarscopes. Supervisors (nonunion) sit perched on a raised throne in the middle, looking down upon rows of about fifty controllers (union) flopped in chairs like doughy bread in bread pans, hunched over, mumbling into headsets. The supervisors are the ones taking me on the tour.
“We handle about 6,500 flights a day,” one of them proudly tells me, “into and out of Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark, as well as forty-six smaller airports.”
“It’s an awesome responsibility,” he says. “You get, I don’t want to call it a God complex, because that’s more for heart surgeons. But the ego starts. If you work here, you gotta start understanding where your ego’s at.”
The job of a TRACON controller is to organize the flow of traffic leaving and approaching the airports. Think of a highway. The TRACON controller handles the merge and the highway itself. There are dozens of other highways at dozens of altitudes he likewise manages. Now, say, at any given moment, ten of those planes zooming at those altitudes all want to use the same exit: LaGuardia Airport. The TRACON controller manages that confusion, gets everyone lined up to exit, one at a time, then hands the organized traffic off to the tower controller. Time is everything, space is everything, keep each airplane at least three miles apart, don’t waste airspace, don’t allow gaps. Quick: Turn ten random jets into a necklace of jets making a descent toward LaGuardia, each plane zooming one mile every eleven seconds. It is not a job for thinkers. You can’t sit back and say, “Hmmm.” Success as a radar controller is about intuition and guts, repetition and feeling.
“You gotta be able to dance,” the supervisor with the ego tells me. “You gotta be able to inject imagination in a moment’s notice. You can’t say, ‘Oh, this isn’t working—what do I do now?’ You gotta say, ‘This isn’t working—do this!’ Know the plan and know when to change it. Always have an out. What if that guy loses an engine? You gotta know. You gotta have ideas. You gotta dance. I go home and my wife says, ‘Don’t boss me around like an airplane.’ It’s true! Here, you say something and it happens. It happens. It’s not like that at home. You know, ‘You can’t talk to me like that! Shut up.’ I always had that problem. You get used to it. I’m not going to call it a God complex, but…free spirits, a lot of us are. You gotta be able to dance.”
At one point, but only after I ask, one of the supervisors agrees to walk me down among the controllers working traffic. I want to talk to them, meet them, maybe pull one aside and hang out in the cafeteria for a soda and ask if there is anything at all to the TRACON’s reputation as a shithole, as the place where teams of disgruntled controllers sit and fume about their jobs—jobs that are about keeping thousands and thousands of otherwise helpless people safe as they’re flung through the sky. The controllers I pass are, of course, busy. But even those plugging out for a break, or just plugging in after a break, avoid my eyes. I feel like I’m being escorted on a tour to see the villagers by Castro or something.
“You’re kidding, right?” explains an unplugged TRACON controller I meet later at a bar. “No one talks, no one looks up, if management is around. That’s, like, not done.”
The former and current TRACON controllers I talk to do so in whispers, saying please, please don’t use their names. They don’t want the FAA to know they’re bad-mouthing them, nor do they want the union to know they are (less so, but not insignificantly) bad-mouthing them. They feel trapped in the cross fire, little kids scrambling to dodge the rocks the big boys hurl at each other. None of them complain about the job itself. They feel proud of the work they do. (They mention God and heart surgeons: “But we have thousands of lives in our hands every minute, and the heart surgeon has, what, two a day?”) They hate everything else. They hate being treated like shit by the FAA, mandatory overtime, six days a week, no questions asked. They hate being exhausted. They hate spending so much time training young recruits, some of whom they feel to be lost causes. The dregs. “We’re getting people now who might not have any other options. When you think about the number of lives you have in your hands every day and the people they’re sending us to put through training, it’s scary.” They hate the mold or whatever the hell the black stuff was that used to pour out of the ceiling vents. They wonder if the black stuff is the reason so many of them have asthma. They have inhalers. They hate not being able to leave the building for lunch. “I just want to drive down the street to McDonald’s. They’re afraid I won’t be back in time. I’m like, I have hundreds of lives in my hands every second, and I get them where they need to be safely. You’re telling me I can’t get myself back from McDonald’s?” They hate getting so little respect. They hate the chickenshit cowardice of their managers. “My manager won’t come out to the control floor, won’t show his face. I barely know what he looks like.” They hate the paper that went around, like, three times that they had to keep signing: You will not strike. It’s against the law. You’ll lose your job. It’s against the law. They hate plenty of the ways the union is handling the situation, expecting them to not impress management, to not go above and beyond the call of duty. “I was raised that you go to work and be the best possible that you can be. But it’s not really like that. We’re not supposed to impress our managers. We’re only supposed to impress each other.” Imagine being on a baseball team and you purposely stand there and take strikes just to piss off the coach while your teammates cheer.
Perhaps most of all, they hate being stuck. They can’t leave this mess without quitting altogether. Any FAA controller can put in a bid for a job at another FAA facility, but your existing manager has to release you to take the new job. Woefully understaffed, the managers at the New York TRACON can’t afford to release anybody. “You’re stuck here. And they’ll flat-out tell you that. You’re not leaving. I got told the other day that maybe, maybe, I’ll get out in five years.”
Oh, they could have gone on and on with the complaints, so they did.
They hate the shame of it all. “It’s such a good job. It’s a lot of fun. But the FAA takes every hope of enjoyment out of it. They ruined the industry. When I first got in, everybody was all about doing everything possible to get as many planes in line, in the shortest amount of time. And over the years, the FAA has just pushed us and pushed us and pushed us, and now people are like, ‘I don’t care.’ They can hold the aircraft for hours, the aircraft will divert, and we don’t care anymore. Now we just work until we think we have enough in, and we hold the rest. It’s not the same mentality as it was. I’m sure you could look at the delays from five years ago to now and you’ll see much bigger delays now. People have stopped caring.”
Factors influencing flight delays are, of course, numerous: airline problems, such as pilot shortages and mechanical breakdowns, and weather issues that cause ripple effects across the country. FAA critics have long pointed the finger at antiquated technology, to which the FAA has responded with the promise of a new, $22 billion satellite-based system. (Current projection: 2025.)
It’s hard to quantify the human factor that goes into airport delays: teams of overworked, pissed-off, unmotivated controllers in radar centers that feel to them like prisons. It’s hard to know if the human factor translates to real safety concerns, although the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Transportation has been warning about that one for a while. Testifying before Congress last summer, the OIG reminded everyone that in 2003 it had reported that “almost 90 percent of controller operational errors (when a controller allows two aircraft to get too close…) were due to human factors” such as fatigue and “situational awareness.” In May 2007, the OIG reported that the FAA had “made little progress in this area.” Progress, according to the testimony last summer, had come slightly in the form of NATPRO, a program designed to sharpen controllers’ “mental skills most closely associated with visual attention and scanning.”
Visual attention and scanning are important, but so, you would think, is the other human factor: These people are miserable.
Does it matter? America has enough to worry about. So some radar controllers are cranky. So some of them have stopped caring. What of it?
brian, my guide, invites me home for dinner. Home is Blue Point, Long Island, over an hour away, a commute he does not mind. In the minivan, he tells me his Little League coach was a controller. He would look at him and think, Wow. In the 1980s, when Top Gun came out, he imagined himself a fighter pilot instead. He took flying lessons, anticipated glory. But reality won out over imagination, as it does for responsible men, and he found himself at the FAA Academy. A lot of the other controllers I talk to fell into the career, as if from outer space, a Plan B for dreamers. Joe studied to be a history teacher, Lars studied geology and chemistry, Andy was a graphic-arts major, Cali, too, wanted to be an artist. He grew up on Long Island, remembers passing LaGuardia tower often; from the road, it looks like a vase, gently narrowing in the middle. As far back as Cali can remember, he wanted to work in that tower, because the shape was so beautiful.
At home Brian’s wife, Kathy, makes spaghetti. Brian loosens the tie he is still getting used to, rolls his head around and around. “It feels like a leash.” A few days ago, he got promoted to supervisor of LaGuardia’s C team. The guys made fun of the tie, of course. What this means, though, is that Brian has left the ranks of the union and crossed over to management. Crossed over. This fact has hardly raised an eyebrow with Cali and Lars and Tim and the rest. Just a nice thing for Brian. Brian is washing out the mug he took to work today. This one says we love you, dad. His own dad died when he was 5. He’s being the dad his dad never got to be. A breadwinner. A responsible man. And now a supervisor.
Kathy makes whopping quantities of extra pasta, having recently learned you can freeze it. She makes homemade sauce even though Brian consistently sings the praises of Ragú. She makes a homemade apple pie. The kids say please and thank you and admit they’re showing off because their dad asked them to be superpolite. We sit down to eat, and my phone rings. I ignore the call, but then it rings two more times. I excuse myself to check the voice mail to find a message from an upset union rep who works at the TRACON. He and I had plans to meet later. He was going to talk to me on the record about conditions there. On my voice mail he says, “Forget it.” He says he’s learned that I am “speaking to management,” and therefore he will not speak to me.
Management? Does he mean Brian? Brian? And how does this union guy know I am with Brian? Does he? Are my tires getting slashed somewhere? I close my phone and go back to the table. I don’t tell Brian. I don’t want to ruin anyone’s appetite.
The next morning, just before dawn, I meet Lars, Cali, Tim, and Eric at the Family Dollar in East Northport and ride in the carpool lane with them to LaGuardia. Eric can’t hear because of the Papa Roach concert he went to last night. Tim is mad at his busted Xbox. Cali is thinking about how much he enjoyed the book Kitchen Confidential. Lars is driving. I tell them about the voice mail.
“Get out! That is beautiful! Oh, that-is-beautiful!”
“I can’t stand it!”
“That’s the TRACON, baby! You didn’t properly genuflect to the union!”
“They’re so warm and cuddly I just love ’em. I just love ’em.”
“That’s why we still have no contract. That. That!”
“That’s bullshit. NATCA used to be king of the jungle, and now they’re not, so they’re pissed.”
“Even when they were kings, they were pissed-off kings.”
“Aw, man, that is beautiful.”
It’s not so much that these guys are sympathetic to management as they are unsympathetic to management and the union both. Just so sick of the whole stupid war.
We sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Whitestone Expressway and wonder why morale at the LaGuardia tower is so completely different than it is at the TRACON.
Lars goes out on a limb and says maybe the reason LaGuardia isn’t a shithole like the TRACON has something to do with Leo, the LaGuardia tower manager on the ninth floor. “For all his bravado, Leo is still his own guy, you know?” You can talk to Leo. You can ask for a day off to go to your kid’s soccer championship and not be laughed out of Leo’s office. Leo isn’t another FAA talking head. Leo, with his monthly pep talks downstairs in the stuffy conference room with the cardboard jammed into the windows to keep out the glare; Leo drinking his power, and spewing it out in a fountain of sharing-the-love. “I trust you with everything I have. I do that every day. It’s what I have. Trust. Because you gotta have the important parts of ‘What-am-I-really-doing-here?’ When you go to sleep at night and you wake up in the morning, are you confident that you’ve done it right? I can’t help you with that. It’s not my burden. It’s yours. It’s about safe transportation for the public. Pay attention! Are you paying attention? When bad things happen, that’s what I look at. In this split second of time, what were you looking at, what were you thinking about, and why did it take you x, y, z seconds to respond? You can explain it to me, or I’ll give you the chance to walk down on the concourse to a full waiting lounge of passengers, and you can raise your hand and tell them, ‘Oh, I’m the air-traffic controller that’s going to work your flight, and oh, by the way, I have a problem with paying attention.’ Look, if you think the distance is that far between your actions and their lives, you’re kidding yourself. You are kidding yourself. That’s what you are. Kidding yourself.”
It would be complete cornball stuff were it not so frighteningly true.
The pep talks are usually only once a month on training days, required refresher courses. Then you watch movies of runway incursions at other towers and wonder what you would have done differently. Then you watch movies of all the ways the FAA is going to get-this-technology-thing-down and move away from Smokey and the Bandit CB radios and into, like, GPS or something awesome like that. It used to be you could go home after the movies were over, but now the FAA says you are not allowed to leave until you have put in every last second of your eight hours of training, so whatever; you read the paper or eat some crackers and bullshit about the chicken wings you had for dinner last night. Whatever. It’s not that bad. It’s no reason to alert your union representative.
The point is: the team. Whose team are you on, anyway?
“The carpool” is what everyone calls Cali and Lars and Eric and Tim, who move as a unit each day in one car or the other and hopefully not Eric’s stupid little truck. They’ve rejoined the rest of the C team up in the tower, everyone again battling rush hour, again and again and again, the morning moves jackhammer fast. Bonk, clunk, bonk, clunk, bonk, clunk. Cali’s craning his neck, watching an MD-80 he just launched on runway 4. Is this asshole going to go, or what? This is an American Airlines MD-80, which in controller language means: geriatrics. You soaking your bunions there, buddy? Nobody understands what the American pilots in those MD-80s do that takes them so long to roll. Cali watches, hopes. Up in the air, he’s got an RJ on approach for runway 31, tells that pilot to square the base, which means don’t cut corners, make a nice wide, square turn in the sky. You’re gonna need the extra time, dude. I’m launching an American MD-80 down here. Square the fucking base.
“I don’t think you’re going to make it,” Camille says. She’s back here on cab-coordinator position, overseeing. It’s kind of like the outfield. The cab coordinator watches the backs of the guys on Local and Ground, a second set of eyes.
The MD-80 gathers oomph like an old lady getting out of a chair down runway 4. The RJ appears first as a glimmer just past Shea Stadium, bigger and bigger until it fully reveals itself. These airplanes are headed toward each other on intersecting runways. Too fast. Too soon. Here it comes. The MD-80 is not over the threshold.… Fuck. “Go around!” Cali says into his headset, instructing the RJ to abort its landing. It’s too close to the MD-80. It’s too close… The plane swoops down, then up abruptly, like a gull with a fresh kill.
“Go-around!” says Camille, putting everyone on alert. “We got a go-around!”
Cali asks Eric, who’s monitoring all the little choppers and private planes zooming around, if he’s got anything at 2,000 feet that might get in the way of the go-around. Eric says he’s got nothing. Cali takes the RJ up to 2,000 feet over Rikers Island; Camille radios the TRACON, says we got a go-around you’re going to have to resequence.
“Yeah, I knew it was a tight shot,” Cali says to the team, apologizing. LaGuardia has thousands of go-arounds a year. At an airport like this, everything is a close call, everything is dependent on split-second decisions, snap judgments, jets constantly barreling toward each other. It’s people, just people, with nerves of steel and uncommon courage, keeping the planes from bashing into each other. Just people.
“I knew it was tight,” Cali says again.
“Nobody’s gonna shed a tear over that shit,” says Lars.
“If those guys would have played nice, it would have worked,” says Joe. If the American would have rolled faster, it would have worked. If the RJ would have squared the base, it would have worked. If the TRACON would just give more fucking separation between arrivals, it would have worked. If Kennedy with its whiny-ass delays hadn’t… Well, Kennedy hasn’t really bothered LaGuardia at all yet today, but it will. It will.
Us versus them. It depends on what team you’re on, and this is the team. This is the C team. This is the family. This is what is so awesome.
Joe stands at a computer monitor, poking it as if trying to revive a dead cat. “Yo, Tim,” he says. “I can’t make my touchy thingie work. Can you insert that Cactus RJ in front of Flagship?” He summons Lars. “Our touchy-screen thingie is not touching again,” he tells Lars.
One day Leo invites me out a little gray door on the tenth floor to see the tower observation deck and to have a smoke. He’s tan, square, a little bit short, a little bit rascal. “Back in the day,” he says, “people paid money to come out here on this observation deck and watch aviation. Okay? There was a time when this was interesting. It was important. It was a place to be.”
It’s windy, hard to get a lighter to light. The sky is crisp blue crested white. Manhattan looks manageable from here, neatly laid out as if you could weed it.
“We’re not Phoenix, you know?” Leo says, shouting over the harsh growl of a launching 757. He’s a big cheese. He’s in charge of twenty-four towers in the region, including Newark and Kennedy, but the LaGuardia tower, such as it is, is his baby darling. “Nothing against the fine people of Phoenix,” he says, “but there’s history here. They showcased this tower at the 1964 world’s fair, okay? And Amelia Earhart, she flew into this airport.… So did all the early airplane builders, people that not only conceptualized aviation but built it themselves with their own hands. This same piece of ground is where they flew into.” He pauses dramatically. He squints toward a world beneath that is his, all his. “I make these new controllers understand the history of where they’re at, okay?” he says. “Because this is a place that has a heart and soul. It’s all about the great people who were here before and their stories. And the stories can be a burden on people’s souls forever. I try to make my people understand that this place is unforgiving, and a mistake here will be a burden on your soul forever.”
I suppose it makes a difference having a guy at the top who is all romance and conscience and chivalry, the sort of fellow who makes you want to purse your lips, wag your brow, and give him an attaboy punch on the chin. I tell him he’s awesome. I never say “awesome.” It’s a word that invades my vocabulary only here, at the LaGuardia control tower. We turn toward the south, speculate about the choppers hovering over what’s left of a crumbled Shea Stadium. We marvel at LaGuardia’s new-tower-next-year; the actual empty promise has been standing right here for almost a year now. It is massive, of course phallic, a 233-foot concrete stalk. Lately, it’s been draped in scaffolding, a very encouraging sign. A gigantic red crane hangs over the top, frozen in place, as if painted there.
“You’re looking at $63 million,” Leo says. “It’s our new tower. We’re moving in next year. No, they really mean it this time.”
jeanne marie laskas is a gq correspondent.