Yesterday I got to visit a bunch of employees that have a job that is as stressful (more so?) as a stock trader, as repetitive as a construction worker, and as straining on the eyes as an office worker that has to stare at a computer screen all day. I guess the bright spot is that they are unionized government employees, right?
If you haven't guessed it by now, I visited a bunch of air traffic controllers during my tour of the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC). A map of the division of ARTCCs across the country is at the right--click to enlarge; they are code ZAU. You can see that they control airspace from central Iowa to the Indiana/Ohio border and from Green Bay, WI down to Champaign, IL. They aren't the biggest sector--Minneapolis takes that cake--but they are one of (if not the) busiest in the country, given that O'Hare airport (ORD) sits right in the middle.
The best part about going yesterday was that although the ceilings (cloud cover) and visibility weren't terrible--good enough to support transitioning to visual approaches (they need 1000ft ceilings and 3 mile visibility)--the wind direction coupled with the wet, rainy conditions forced them to only have 2 runways available for landings and 2 for takeoffs. With the runways being wet, they cannot use intersecting runways under a "land and hold short" program (LAHSO), but the wind direction favored using intersecting runways. This dropped their inbound arrival capacity from a normal of 94/hour to 72/hour (and it fell to 64/hour as the weather dropped while we were there).
I wish I would have been able to take pictures--it was nothing like I expected, yet everything like I expected. The "floor" is broken up into 9 main areas, each having 6-10 controllers stationed, each controlling a sector of the airspace. Each arrival into ORD comes in from the Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, or Southwest, and each has their own area. Departures out of ORD go North, South, East or West. Traffic from other airports just fits in where it can. The 9th area controls the high altitude traffic that does not terminate within the airspace--transcon flights, military, etc.. Each controller has a 3-4' square main display that shows their sector, and all the traffic in it. The traffic all has a data block showing flight number (or tail number for GA), altitude, ground speed, etc. They also have an aux touchscreen display where they can pull up airport and airspace fix information, weather information, etc.
Other random things that I learned while I was there:
- They keep track of any operational error, regardless of how minor, and display it on a big screen. For example, if, at a particular altitude, their separation requirements are 5 nautical miles horizontally and 1000 feet vertically, and two aircraft get 4.99 NM apart, that's an operational error
- They have a meteorologist on staff that is familiar with the weather patterns in the area
- They have 4-6 controllers (depending on weather and load) that are dedicated to talking to other centers, and approach to help control flow--these guys don't talk directly to aircraft
- They have a piece of software that is supposed to correlate inbound aircraft with the number of available slots, based on inbound flow controls. It is also supposed to give the controller a delay time (i.e. slow this aircraft down or curve him around for spacing). It doesn't work when the weather goes to heck, and they often shut it off (as it was last night). They have a few nicknames for it such as pig's lipstick and Cedric (as in Cedric Benson--overhyped, cost a lot of money, doesn't perform).
- Most of the controllers are not pilots, and many don't like pilots--especially Mooney drivers as they tend to be the ones that fly because they can, not because they want to, and therefore don't pay attention. Mental note: don't fly a Mooney
- The computer equipment seems to be a hodge podge of whatever was on sale that week at Fry's. Granted, it's standardized, but each station is a self contained rack of equipment with both Sun and Dell hardware.
- The entire area is all on a raised floor, I'm guessing to make rearranging, etc. easier, if necessary. I would also guess that all that equipment generates a ton of heat.
- There is a secure cube off to the side. Apparently there's some coded gear in there, etc. The most interesting thing about it is that the raised floor immediately around it is made of Plexiglas. Apparently they don't want people crawling under the floor into there.
I'm really glad that I went, and I would urge any pilots (even if you're not a pilot) to find an opportunity and go. It's a great experience to understand the other side of the radio.