By Stacey Doud
If you’re like me when you have to travel by air, you get on a plane, try to chill out, read a book, have a drink and just trust that you will land safely. But there is so much more involved behind the scenes that you will never see…until now.
While I was covering a recent story, I was fortunate enough to meet Reverend Greg McBrayer, who is a Chief Flight Dispatcher with American Airlines (AA), a Chaplain and the Director of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport’s (DFW) Interfaith Chaplaincy.
Rev. McBrayer was kind enough to offer me a tour of American Airlines’ Flight Control, which is housed in the Robert W. Baker Integrated Operations Center (IOC) on the AA Headquarters Campus in Dallas.
McBrayer has worked at AA for 40 years (35 years as a Flight Controller) and is very familiar with the ins and outs of making air travel as safe as possible for passengers, as well as working for over 20 years as one of the spiritual lighthouses for passengers and crew.
To get some “layman’s” understanding, watch the last episode of season two of the AMC TV show, Breaking Bad, or the movie, Flight, starring Denzel Washington. These offerings give a “movie magic” glimpse into how airplanes are advised to increase or decrease altitude and airspeed, etc. to avoid bad weather, other planes and more. The situations in these fictional presentations are as rare as when Captains Chelsey Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles landed an Airbus A320 in the Hudson River in 2009: It could happen, but rarely does because of the folks working behind the scenes.
McBrayer led us into a large room with many workstations. It reminded me of the trading floor on Wall Street, but without the frantic activity.
“The building is divided into two levels. This bottom floor is mainly admin stuff that are support roles for all of the different departments that make this airline work,” McBrayer said. “This is where the ‘nine to five’ work goes on. These hundreds of folks support the hundreds of people that work upstairs where the Flight Control level is.”
Several glass offices lined the room, one of which is the Prayer Room.
“This is an extremely high stress job that we’re in, so we need a quiet place we can go. This room becomes that sanctuary,” said McBrayer. “People have to surrender when they come to work, and [humans] are not good at doing that. It’s out of your hands,” McBrayer said. He intercedes in that perceived loss of control and brings peaceful words to his co-workers when he can.
McBrayer offers ministry in a larger conference room every Monday. If an employee can’t make it to the service, he or she can dial a dedicated phone number to listen in to hear the message.
The other rooms are used primarily for training and classes, including the training that Flight Controllers, including McBrayer, have to take part in every month to keep their certificates active and valid with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
“We have a whole class of guys going through training right now. We have the largest class I’ve ever seen in my 40-year tenure,” McBrayer explained. “This is an extremely long process and it takes about a year. They’re hired and are in here [training rooms] for several months, and then they train with an experienced flight controller until they’re ‘checked out.’”
In his four decades of service, McBrayer has seen a few changes.
“Probably the biggest change during my tenure here has been the advancement in technology. This a very, very technical job here, and it always has been, but it’s at a whole different level now. It [technology] changes weekly. It can be difficult to keep up with,” McBrayer explained. “It’s guided by a lot of things that we have no control over, like fuel prices and world events.”
Rev. McBrayer then led us upstairs to the Flight Control Room, which is really the heart of the IOC.
This huge area also looked like something from Wall Street, with the same endless workstations, two or three large screen computer monitors in each station that displayed all of the AA planes in the air at that moment. Some of the employees were in charge of keeping track of the weather, so their screens were full of different types of weather maps. Others were monitoring national and international air traffic.
Should a crisis break out, whether due to weather, terrorism or any other situation that risks the safety of AA passengers, there is a “Command Center,” housed in the IOC. This is similar to the “Situation Room” at the White House. The required staff convene in this room when something like 9/11 happens to formulate a plan of action to address the safety of passengers and ground control staff. The room contains maps of the world and has several clocks displaying the time across international time zones. Each workstation has a phone and a computer, so that all participants can stay current on the progress of each issue, whether it be foreign or domestic.
Next time you are on a flight, remember all the good people behind the scenes that help get you to your destination safely!