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In the Nerve Center

Air Traffic Control Coordinator Craig Podzielinski looks at the big picture

BY MARIE REINKE

AFTER 35 YEARS with Continental Airlines, Air Traffic Control Coordinator Craig Podzielinski — coworkers call him “Podge” — knows almost instinctively how busy his day in the airline’s nerve center will be when thunderstorms threaten.

Podge’s job is to keep the airline running efficiently and reduce delays. He works with the operations director, operations managers, dispatchers, customer service coordinators and others in the Houston System Operations Coordination Center (SOCC), where command decisions are made. “Our work is routine until something goes wrong,” he says, “like a weather system or a diversion.”

Podge logs in via iPhone on his way to work (“I want to know what’s coming,” he says), and at his desk he surveys aircraft and weather patterns in the United States on four monitors simultaneously. One of his tools is the Aerobahn, which tracks aircraft movements on the ground at the Houston and Newark hubs. Another tool helps him allocate landing slots when weather reduces the arrival rate. Another still tracks altitude, speed and route information for flights in the air. The FAA’s Operational Information System (OIS) provides real-time airport delay information from FAA facilities.

“When that screen is empty and there are no weather reroutes, it’s a great day,”

Podge says, “because all the customers are on time. In the summertime, it can be a different story. When convective activity or strong winds are present, there will be air traffic delays.”

Every two hours, the airlines have a national traffic control teleconference, and airlines dial into the FAA command center for updates on issues in the national airspace. Podge listens to those calls and reviews the FAA database to determine whether an airport may be placed in a ground delay program by the FAA command center, which means arrivals and departures will slow down.

In the SOCC, Continental may be watching 40 flights at Chicago, 280 flights at Newark and 380 flights at Houston.

“It takes experience to stay focused. Training a person to do this job takes almost a year.” Podge and his team can’t get enough, however. They even pick up dispatcher shifts on days off to stay close to the action.

Suddenly, two phones ring at once. Podge’s colleague and ATC Coordinator Jonathan Uhrig covers the Texas regional hotline and ATC Coordinator James Difloe takes the New York call. “Put it on speaker,” Podge instructs Uhrig. “I’ll listen to both.”

On another screen Podge views ground delay programs, checks the customer service team’s list of passengers connecting to international flights, and reduces their delays so they’ll make their connections. There may be a group of 25 customers, for example, connecting from Houston, to Newark, to points all over Europe. If he delays another flight for an hour from Jacksonville to Newark, it can preserve the group’s international itinerary.

With the push of a button, Podge reduces a 45-minute delay to just 20 minutes. Then a message goes out to the FAA and the airport, which passes it on to relieved passengers and crew.

“I want customers to know we’re doing the best we can to get them where they want to go, on time and safely,” Podge says. “We know they are on their way home, or have important engagements to attend or maybe a wedding the next day. There’s always someone behind the scenes who’s thinking about how to keep them moving.”

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