Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Out of the Frying Pan...

It's not easy to find an analogy for ATC. It really is a unique job and it's hard to find a comparison for the stresses and challenges that come with it. The flexibility, the reaction times, the ability to manage resources and plan effectively - those are integral components of being a controller.

I've been watching a lot of Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares lately, the British version that's shown on BBC America. For those that are not familiar with it, each episode features a struggling restaurant that asks Chef Ramsey to come in, see what they're doing wrong, and try to turn their failing business around. What ensues is usually a lot of tension, screaming, F-bombs, egos, and - occasionally - people getting fired. However, in the end, the restaurant usually manages to come around.

From the first time I watched Kitchen Nightmares, I knew that I'd found the perfect comparison. Watching a chef go down in flames on a busy Saturday night is the closest thing I've seen to what it looks like when you go down the shitter at the scope. It's just chaos, a battle against panic as you try to keep your head above water.

See for yourself. Below are the first two parts of Season 3's episode featuring the Clubway 41 restaurant. Through the course of the episode, it's clear that the chef in charge of the place is unable to handle the pressure and quickly folds.

Clubway 41: Episode 3, Season 3, Part 1
The intro to the situation.
Clubway 41: Episode 3, Season 3, Part 2
Fast forward to about 2:00, and you will see what it looks like to go down the shitter.

You can clearly see what happens when you don't keep organized and don't keep up with the demands. There comes a point where you just want to throw up your hands and say "I'm so deep in the crap that I'll never get out.".

But you can't do that in ATC. You can't just kick people out of the restaurant and shut your doors. The people you're providing service for aren't out for a quick bite of food that they can get elsewhere, but are in any number of pressurized metal tubes careening through the sky at hundreds of knots, possibly pointed at each other or someone else's airspace. If you or someone else don't do something, you're looking at a deal, or worse.

That distinction aside, there are a remarkable number of similarities between life in the kitchen and life in the radar room. As an illustration, I made up the following table showing some of the requirements the professional culinary world and the air traffic control profession have in common:

Professional Kitchen Air Traffic Control
PlanningPreparing ingredients in advance, designing the menu to be as simple as possible,and managing reservations to prevent overbooking contribute to a smoothly flowing kitchen.Using available information, formulate a plan for your traffic, such as determining your sequence to final and protecting airspace for your departures.
MultitaskingDealing with multiple orders of a variety of dishes for multiple tables is par for the course. Multiple aircraft with multiple needs are to be expected and need to be handled properly in an organized fashion.
TeamworkEach person in the kitchen needs to accomplish their task effectively. If the meat station and vegetable station are fine, but the sauce station falls behind, the entire dish is held up. Feeding other sectors properly, preventing problems someone else needs to fix, and letting coworkers know if you spot a problem in their airspace are some examples of the teamwork involved.
Health Risks Undercooking meats such as chicken, storing good ingredients next to spoiled food, and failing to keep your kitchen clean will cause food poisoning. Run your kitchen right or you'll kill someone. As a controller, you are responsible for the lives of potentially thousands of people in a given moment. Also, your own health is put to the test with the stress of the job.
FlexibilityIngredients will run out, equipment will fail, and orders will change. Work through that and deliver the meals as best you can. Pilots, weather, and equipment will change their minds frequently. Be ready to work out new plans each time this happens.
CommunicationThe kitchen and the front-of-house staff need to convey problems and questions clearly.Clear communication is vital when coordinating requests and point-outs with other facilities and sectors.
SpeedThe longer diners wait, the more unhappy they become, and the smaller the chance they will return. Pilots do not like being delayed unnecessarily. Try to be as efficient as possible in getting aircraft to their destination.
PhraseologyAll members of the restaurant team need to be writing and reading the orders the same way so that the orders are filled correctly.Controllers and pilots are expected to use standardized phraseology for issuing instructions, making requests, and gathering information.

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