December 16, 2011

A Day in the Life: Air Traffic System Controller


Welcome to the second edition in our new series, A Day in the Life, where we take you behind-the-scenes at JetBlue to learn more about the important jobs that work in concert to make a major airline run. This time, we visit with Don, a member of a small and highly specialized team we call Air Traffic System Controllers.

Don starts his day by entering into the restricted area at our headquarters, the System Operations center, or central nervous system if you will, of JetBlue. He turns on his six computer screens – yes, six! – and tunes each to the necessary sites for his daily duties. Don is responsible for monitoring all of JetBlue’s traffic in and out of the New York area and for suggesting how we configure our operations based on any number of factors including weather patterns, volume of flights, and any other external conditions that might apply.

On one of Don’s many screens shows a live map of the New York air space with real-time updates of all of the planes coming into and flying out of JFK, LaGuardia and Newark. To the novice eye this can appear daunting, but Don calmly points out what planes belong to what airline and where they’re coming from or going to based on their positioning.

Another computer screen shows a live map of our home base of operations at JFK’s Terminal 5, where he monitors our planes as they move in and out of the gates, the taxiways and runways. Yet another computer screen shows the FAA computer program for swapping aircraft arrival slots, a tactic Don employs to help minimize delays to help customers make connecting flights when the FAA issues a Ground Delay Program for an airport, for instance, or for other relevant issues.

Every two hours Don hops on a call hosted by the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center and joins the other major airlines to stay updated about travel conditions and air traffic in the New York area and at other busy airports in the U.S. He serves as an advocate for JetBlue and as a liaison between us and the FAA. Sometimes Don chimes in with requests and updates; often he just listens in case there’s important information he’ll need to take back to the team.

Don is always constantly checking in to a program called FSM, or Flight Schedule Monitor. This displays the departure and arrival data for a given airport at a given time. JFK, for instance, that afternoon was showing that it was receiving 56 flights an hour (a good number given that it was a good weather day). Don watches the estimated number that the FAA predicts the airport can handle versus how many flights actually come in, and sometimes advises if the number could be higher to help maximize efficiency and get people where they need to go as quickly and safely as possible. Don also simultaneously has his email and instant messaging to get information to others in the SOC and to Customer Service and Operations agents in the BlueCities. He moves effortlessly between the many screens to stay on top of the current flight and weather patterns, and any incoming or outgoing requests that need to be handled.

Don’s job differs greatly day to day and even more starkly from season to season. Summer is often the most intense, with pop-up thunderstorms that complicate operations all up and down the East Coast, particularly challenging in the congested air space from Washington D.C. up to New York and Boston. He works closely with our System Operations, Crew Scheduling, Dispatch and Customer Support teams to ensure that all workgroups are aligned with decision-making around flight scheduling to keep our operations streamlined and on time when the weather is good, and to keep our customers moving as best we can when the weather is causing delays.

Don has been with JetBlue for 11 years, almost since the very beginning, and has worked just about every job possible at an airline, moving up from Ground Operations to Flight Dispatch, Systems Control Desk, and now Air Traffic Control for the past two plus years.  Don jokes that he had a full head of hair when he started working at JetBlue, “but now I’m bald. Go figure!” Despite missing his ‘fro, Don relays that he’s passionate about his job. “I like what I do. Every day is a fresh start.”

Check out the first in our series, A Day in the Life: Ground Operations, and be sure to keep an eye out for the next up in January!

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