Inside La Guardia's Air Traffic Control GQ magazine correspondent Jeanne Marie Laskas ventured up the control tower at New York's La Guardia airport, where air traffic controllers "plug in," making a matrix of decisions that trickle down to the hordes of passengers on thousands of daily flights. Laskas, who wrote the article "Traffic" for GQ's May 2009 issue, talks with Neal Conan.
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Inside La Guardia's Air Traffic Control

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Inside La Guardia's Air Traffic Control

Inside La Guardia's Air Traffic Control

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NEAL CONAN, host:

We see the gate agents and the flight attendants sometimes, at the end of a flight, the pilots will emerge, but we rarely the men and women who orchestrate airplane traffic, get our flight off the ground, across the country and onto our destination.

At the moment, there's a cold war of sorts between the FAA and the Air Traffic Controllers Union over pay and training and working conditions and safety. In the latest issue of GQ magazine, Jeanne Marie Laskas ventured into the control tower at New York's La Guardia Airport which everyone agrees is a dump and a great place to work.

And if you're an air traffic control, what is it like inside your tower? Tell us your story Our phone number, 800-989-8255; email, talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Jeanne Marie Laskas is a correspondent for GQ magazine and joins us today for member station WQED in Pittsburgh.

Nice to have you on the program today.

Ms. JEANNE MARIE LASKAS (Correspondent, GQ Magazine): Thank you.

CONAN: I said you've ventured into the tower as if you just kind of strolled into there, in fact, months of negotiations to get in there.

Ms. LASKAS: Oh, yes, with the FAA which, you know, they don't - I don't think they want to show off a lot of these towers.

CONAN: And the description of it, you go from that sort of, well, La Guardia is not our most modern airport by any stretch of the imagination but, nevertheless, these shiny boutiques and pretzel stores, and suddenly go through a steel door and you're in another world.

Ms. LASKAS: It felt like Leningrad, perhaps, or some Soviet state that we are -have long since stopped looking at. It was quite dilapidated. I was shocked.

CONAN: Archie Bunker couches held together by duct tape, paint peeling off the walls and the technology, you said, reminded you of a Tandy and Commodore computers.

Ms. LASKAS: Yes. And Heath Kit, yes. And the telephones sort of - you know, there'll be a red phone with a sign on it that says: black phone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Everything was sort of taped together and lot of duct tape it seemed.

CONAN: And, yes, everybody agreed that the place they worked was a dump, and they all seemed thrilled to work there.

Ms. LASKAS: These controllers are - I spent sometime with the C team and there's three teams there. And the C team was my group. And these were people who had survived worst conditions at the New York TRACON, which is the radar center in Long Island. And the conditions at the La Guardia tower where by far preferable. This was terrific for them.

CONAN: And the job itself - we're going into TRACON in a minute and the more systemic problems with their traffic control. But the job itself is famously, well, described, I think, brilliantly by some of the - this is not a job for people who think.

Ms. LASKAS: No. If you're a thinker, you would fail miserably. You need to react. You need to have a feel for this job. You've got to decide at a split second, yes, tell that pilot to turn right, turn down alpha, up bravo, you launch, you know, you do this, you do that immediate, immediate, immediate. No time for thinking.

CONAN: No time for thinking. No, well, gee willikers I need to step back here because it's all happening too fast. Every 45 seconds, a plane landing and taking off.

Ms. LASKAS: Exactly. Fast.

CONAN: It's incredibly fast. And the pressure that these people must be under is enormous.

Ms. LASKAS: Yes. And, you know, it was surprising to me how well adjusted they were.

(Soundbite of laughter)

I don't think I would have been. They had just - they're just really, you know, nervous feel as they say. And they really did. And they are very well trained, very well trained to do this.

And they take a break. You know, they sort of need a break every - about 45 minutes. They just have to stop, walk out of the tower, clear their heads 'cause you just can't take it any longer than that. And then, they come back and refreshed.

CONAN: And then, after their shift, go home and then come back and do it again the next day.

Ms. LASKAS: Yes. And for some - in some facilities, those days are becoming more and more and more with six-day work weeks. There's a labor shortage that's pretty severe right now. And…

CONAN: Labor shortage sounds pretty extraordinary in these times. You'd think people would be beating down the doors for this jobs, which are not bad.

Ms. LASKAS: These are good jobs. These are good-paying jobs. The problem is the training takes so very long. People want these jobs. They're not having trouble getting the people. It's the - the FAA had a hiring freeze for a number of years and for a very long time. And it wasn't until 2006 that they started opening the doors again to fill these positions.

However, the retirement age of the controllers is 56 years old.

CONAN: Mandatory?

Ms. LASKAS: And - mandatory. And these retirements are now coming, you know, in a great wave. And there are not…

CONAN: These are all the people hired after PATCO, the previous union, after all those people were fired by President Reagan.

Ms. LASKAS: Right. They're all about the same age. They all came in after the strike and took these jobs and they've done terrific work, and now they're, you know, they're in their 50's, they're about to walk out the door. The, you know, you could see the writing on the wall that there were going to be all these positions opened. And why weren't they being filled? Why weren't they being filled? This was the question that the controllers union, NATCA, was asking. And now, we're seeing a result of that. There are not enough people to work.

CONAN: And the qualifications - previously, it was thought you needed to go to college for this?

Ms. LASKAS: Yes. You went to college, you - many people studied aviation. They studied, you know, they trained - some of them trained as pilots. There was all sorts of, you know, it was a job that you held your head high because you were going to become a controller. Now, they're being people in off the street, you know? You know, anybody. If you're working at the mall, you want a good job, go talk to the FAA, they'll probably give you a shot.

CONAN: We're talking with Jeanne Marie Laskas of GQ magazine, who wrote "Traffic" in the May 2009 issue about how air traffic control works at the tower at New York La Guardia Airport. If you work in air traffic control, call and tell us what your job is like: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And Lee(ph) joins us now on the line from Southern California.

LEE (Caller): Hi. How are you doing today?

CONAN: Very well.

LEE: I just called in to kind of talk about the situations under which I work, as a controller in a tower in Southern California. And it just seems like the equipment and kind of the facility as a whole is a little outdated. Obviously, not on the cutting edge of technology by any stretch of the imagination.

CONAN: And what part of the business are you in?

LEE: I'm a controller myself.

CONAN: And so you are on one of those shifts at an airport?

LEE: Yes. I'm not currently working, no, but I mean at my tower in Southern California, we're not the busiest tower, but like I said that's a good staff, but I don't know. The way the things are - the way the things go down as far as the conditions under which you work whether it be like, you know, sometimes you even wonder if it's good to drink the water at the office, you know?

CONAN: Really? And is it dirty?

LEE: By what means? Like the facilities?

CONAN: Yeah.

LEE: Facilities, yeah, they're a little bit dirty.

CONAN: Okay.

LEE: But - sorry?

CONAN: What would be the most important improvement you would suggest, Lee?

LEE: Well, to be honest with you, the cost of living in Southern California is quite up there. And the pay that you get as a controller is not what a lot of people think it is. And so I probably have to say it would either be the pay or the working conditions, because the job, as a whole, is a really great job. It's fun and it's challenging every day. But it seems like once you unplug your headset, that's when, you know, it's not as fun to work for the FAA anymore.

CONAN: And that's a kind of complaint, Jeanne, that you heard a lot.

LEE: Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah. Let's go to Jeanne for that, yeah.

LEE: Oh, sorry.

Ms. LASKAS: Yes. The - well, it's funny that you would mention the water in Southern California because at La Guardia tower, they're having a lot of trouble with the plumbing, that the toilets are exploding all the time on them. And there's leaks in the ceiling and it's sort of like got diapers up all over and leading the water down, or they used to. So, the conditions itself are a large part of the struggle for the workers there.

CONAN: Lee, thanks very much. And good luck to you.

LEE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. You also talk to people about, well, again, Lee, like a lot of people, the job itself is really exciting.

Ms. LASKAS: Everyone I talked to liked the job. Even in the worst conditions, they like to work. The - see, now, the FAA will say they're whining. But if they're complaining, it's about the conditions and it's about the treatment, the respect that they get from their management, which they feel is quite terrible.

They don't have choices. They can't - at some of the radar facilities, there are mandatory six-day work weeks. They cannot take any more time off because they're so short staffed. And not only that, it's not like they can just go work at a different facility. You can't just go work at another place. You have to be let go by your bosses, and the bosses won't let them go. So you feel quite trapped.

CONAN: And to be fair, the - those conditions you were describing at La Guardia's tower are at least, in part, due to the fact that they're scheduled to move into a new tower next year.

Ms. LASKAS: Right. And that was, sort of, one of the jokes, because the new tower next year - they were told in, I think in the '80s that they were getting a new tower next year. That's sort of what they say every year. And so why fix up the old tower if we're getting a new tower next year?

But it was kind of like this absurd, almost, you know, well, absurd humor that - where is our new tower next year? Is it going to be next year? Is it going to be next year? Now, in fact, I do think it is going to be next year because you can actually see it physically going up. So I think they are going to be moving into some slick facility soon.

CONAN: And one of the things we don't necessarily realize is that there is this whole system of what you described as guardian angels, who from the moment we get on the plane at the gate to the moment we step off the plane at the gate, they're following our flight as it goes down the taxiway, as it goes down the runway. And hand off to each other as they go from center to center.

Ms. LASKAS: Yes. That was sort of really interesting just on the level of the way that we are sort of taken care of as passengers with - by these, I call them guardian angels up there, in essence that they're tracking our flight from every moment. So the minute you leave the tower space, you're at a TRACON -it's called a TRACON space, which is a radar facility, which is at a certain altitude. And then you go higher and you're at a center.

And under his - her command, working at a center, across the country like this from center to center. So someone is always watching you. It's in those radar facilities where the real problems, I think, are occurring now.

CONAN: And you describe this - it's almost - the image I got was a supervisor sitting up high watching these - the union people down below almost the way, you know, well, I don't want to draw the analogy too much. But in other words, this was a different situation than you saw in La Guardia.

Ms. LASKAS: Yeah. The TRACON, the radar facility situation was really abhorrent, and those people spoke a lot to me only on the condition of anonymity. They did not want their names being used. They were terrified. They were very frank about how miserable they were, and how they felt stuck, and how they wanted to get out and how they couldn't get out unless they quit their jobs and they couldn't afford to just simply quit their jobs.

And they were exhausted. And they were having to train the new recruits coming in, which are coming in in droves now because they're so short staffed. It takes years to train a new controller, years, three years sometimes. And who's training them are these controllers who are already so overworked. So it's coming at them from all sides and they're just sick of it and the scary thing to me was, really, when they said, you know, we used to really care about getting flights in on time and, really, that was that kind of the goal, to show how well you could do this, to show your peers.

And now, they say, you know, we just don't care. We do a good enough job, and that's all we're going to do because they have just pushed us too far. So the morale is quite terrible.

CONAN: Jeanne Marie Laskas, a correspondent for GQ magazine, writing about air traffic control. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get Mike(ph) on the line. Mike, calling from Casper, Wyoming.

MIKE (Caller): Hello? Hello?

CONAN: Hello, Mike. You're on the air, go ahead Mike, please.

MIKE: Yes. I'm a commercial pilot. I actually into a major metropolitan area five nights a week. I would like to mention that I have noticed a decline in the quality professional capability of controllers within the last year. We do understand that there is many new controllers coming on board, but they're not quite with the program now. Pilots used to have a 60-year retirement. That's now been pushed back to 65.

Certainly, it would seem that in light of the manpower shortage that they could move the 60 - 56 year age retirement for controllers back a few years to help alleviate all of the new people coming in at this time.

CONAN: Mike, you say you've seen a decline in the quality of the air traffic controllers. Are you concerned that it's declined to the point where you don't feel safe?

MIKE: I certainly still feel safe but with the controllers that are more inexperienced, there is less - or I should say there is more in-trail spacing between airplanes. And when the weather is good, this results in delays that we just didn't face a year ago.

CONAN: Okay. Thanks, Mike, very much for the call. Of course, La Guardia, notorious for its delays as, well, it's one of the older airports. And that issue of safety, the FAA people you talked to in your story, Jeanne, say, look, are records, look at the safety records, the last, you know, 10 years, it's been great.

Ms. LASKAS: That's correct, and you can't argue it, and thank God and we're all happy about that. I think that the union's response to that is sort of alarmist, admittedly, is, well, you know, good but it's only a matter of time. How much - thinner can you make this situation so that finally it falls apart?

They're worried that it's just going to go too far. The new controllers will be just not experienced enough. The controllers are too exhausted to keep this going. That's their worry. I'm not saying I support this necessarily. I see both sides, but it's hard not to see it from - in that perspective because the numbers are there.

CONAN: And the other issue is equipment. Some of these is, you know, sort of preference. Everybody who's there kind of likes the old ways because, well, they know the old ways. Nevertheless, there are all kinds of equipment. You -the pilot we were just talking to was talking about spacing. You can safely fly planes much closer together if you have modern equipment.

Ms. LASKAS: If you have modern equipment, certainly. And there is - the FAA is on a great mission to start this whole new GPS-based system that's going to be in the year 2025 supposedly introduced. So, you know, I guess they're working on it. However, now, I don't know that's even the equipment issue so much as when I listen to those TRACON controllers. You know, the spacing that is legal between flights, you know, they're just going to do what is legal. They're not going to try and do - you know, work within the window to do it - have it faster.

They don't care about delays anymore. They're just going to do what's safe and what's legal and not try and do it faster. In the old days, they would. In the old days, they prided themselves on getting out of delays. That was kind of like, you know, your badge of honor. I got out of delays in my shift. Now, they say, you know, delays, whatever.

CONAN: To be fair also, Jeanne, to also talk to an air traffic controller at the tower at La Guardia, not the TRACON center, who takes a great pride as she describes it, as bringing a plane in on the ground and keeping it moving. Even though it's delayed, the allusion of progress to the passengers, very important until it finally gets to the eventually unclogged gate and people feel a little bit better. And the only difference was they felt a little bit better. Nevertheless, he thought he was doing his job. Jeanne Marie Laskas, thank you very much for your time today.

Ms. LASKAS: Thank you.

CONAN: Jeanne Marie Laskas is a correspondent for GQ magazine and wrote "Traffic," which appears in the May 29009 issue of the magazine. And there's a link to it on our Web site. Go to npr.org click on TALK OF THE NATION. She joined us from member station WQED in Pittsburgh.

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