Air Traffic Cop
AS AN AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER AT WESTCHESTER COUNTY AIRPORT, CHRIS MAZZA ALWAYS HAS US ON HIS RADAR.
Photo by John Rizzo
How long have you been an air traffic controller?
I was hired in December of 1989. It took about ten years after Reagan fired the controllers in 1981 to replace them. The FAA went on a massive hiring spree, and I was hired near the end of that hiring wave.
What’s the training like?
You have to go through the “Academy,” which is out in Oklahoma City. When I went, it was pass/fail, and about fifty percent of trainees failed. They’ve since made it easier, and so there’s now about a ninety-percent graduation rate but we’re experiencing more failures in the field.
How often do you work?
We normally work eight-hour shifts. By law, the most a controller can work in a day is ten hours, unless there’s an emergency. We’re not allowed to work more than sixty hours in a week, and we’re not allowed to work more than two hours at a time without a break. Recently, we’ve been working quite a lot of overtime because of the staffing shortage that the FAA is experiencing. We’ve worked more overtime in the last two years than in the previous ten combined.
Can you explain the current shortage?
Controllers work between twenty and twenty-five years before they’re eligible for retirement, and they’re not allowed to work past the age of fifty-six. All those traffic controllers they hired in the eighties started becoming eligible for retirement in 2001. We’ve now reached the pinnacle of those retirements. We’re currently in a contract dispute with the FAA. The controllers don’t see an incentive to stay on the job, so they’re taking the early-retirement option. That’s causing us to lose a wave of experienced and seasoned controllers.
I imagine Reagan must not be air traffic controllers’ favorite president?
He’s not. There were a few controllers fired by Reagan, who were allowed to be re-hired by Clinton. You can imagine what they think of Reagan.
You must really loathe airplane disaster movies.
Well, they’re not very accurate!
What’s the biggest challenge in your job?
Air traffic is, ninety-five percent of the time monotonous and tedious. The other five percent you have the unexpected and an emergency will come in. You have very little time to react—often, a matter of seconds.
What’s the biggest challenge at Westchester County Airport?
We’re one of the busiest corporate airports in the world. Unlike commercial carriers, which have to schedule their flights ahead of time, corporates can fly whenever they want to. So our biggest challenge is dealing with a lot of airplanes showing up, all unscheduled, at the same time.
How busy do you get?
An extremely busy time for our airport is when we hit one-hundred operations an hour—that means one-hundred landings and takeoffs, that’s how they count traffic. We probably average about forty operations an hour; one-hundred-and-twenty is probably the highest we ever get. That will be like the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, or the day after Christmas, and certain holiday weekends.
Any UFO sightings?
I’m afraid not. We might have unidentified airplanes, but not unidentified objects, though in my time, I’ve had people call us up and report UFOs. Usually, it turns out to be a helicopter or low-flying plane.
Do you believe in UFOs?
No. I think the military is testing a lot of stuff that we don’t know about.
How are the duties delegated in the tower?
There’s essentially four primary positions: there’s clearance delivery (CD), there’s ground control (GC), local control (LC), and there’s a cab coordinator (CC)—and then there’s the supervisor, the controller in charge (CIC). In a typical day you will rotate through all four job functions. The GC is responsible for taxiing and controlling the planes from the ramp to the runway for departure, and controlling plans exiting the runway after landing on their parking ramp. The CD is responsible for issuing the route of flights to aircraft; how they’re going to fly once they’re airborne. The LC is responsible for controlling airplanes that depart the runway and for sequencing airplanes for landing at the airport within the terminal control zone, which is a 5 mile radius. That’s probably the most exciting job at the tower, because that’s where the most challenging aspects of our job come into play. That’s the meat of it. The CC is an assist position; they will help the local controller and the ground controller, or will assist in coordinating between the two. It’s vital that the tower operates as a team. Everyone has to know what the other controllers are going to do without asking. And certain instructions have to be coordinated, like crossing a runway. And the CIC oversees the entire operations, and is the extra set of eyes, and will give an extra hand if someone needs assistance.
What’s the most stressful weather event for you?
When we have low visibility it’s more difficult to work because you can’t see any of the airplanes, so you have to go from looking out the window to working from memory since you can’t rely on your eyes.
Any kinds of medical restrictions?
There’s quite a few. Any kind of medication that could possibly impair you we’re not allowed to have. Like if you take a pain killer or an antihistamine you can’t work for 24 hours. The FAA maintains a list of medications allowed on duty, but it’s very restrictive. And as for our health, controllers have a yearly medical review they must undergo to remain active as a controller. If you take certain medications or have certain conditions, like if you became an epileptic, you’d lose your medical clearance to work.
What’s the most inaccurate thing you see in TV and movies?
The most obvious thing is the phraseology the controllers are using. We have a very specific way of talking to each other. If you listen to a tape, and you don’t know anything about air traffic control it sounds like a foreign language. So that’s obvious, they’ll use a lot of regular speech. That’s one of the more glaring things.
What do you enjoy most?
The mental challenge. It’s like a chess game. If you like chess you’d love air traffic control. It’s very similar: if you move this airplane here, then you have to move this other airplane there. You need to be able to look ahead and see how the move of one airplane affects the moves of all the other planes.
Has working as a controller ever sparked an interest in being on the other end of the job?
Actually about half the controllers are pilots. I haven’t had formal training, but I’ve flown airplanes many times.
What would people be most surprised to know about your job?
The amount of hours worked. Intuitively, they think, oh, stressful job. Most people think we don’t work that many hours or that we’d have more downtime. Over in Europe it’s very common to work a lot less hours as a controller.
Did you work on 9/11?
I was supposed to work later that day, but when my wife told me the planes had hit the World Trade Center, I called work and asked if they needed me to come in early and they said, “Of course!” I drove as fast as I could to get in. We had to land every single airplane that was in the sky at the time—that was the first time that ever happened in the history of flying. So, for about two hours, it was constantly landing airplanes. That it was accomplished in such a timely and safe fashion was a testament to all the people working that day. And right after 9/11 Westchester became the busiest airport in the nation: because they had closed the airspace around New York City, we were the closest airport to the city that wasn’t inside the closed airspace radius.