- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 25, 2007

Debra Griffith keeps her eyes on the skies.

With up to 50,000 planes vying for U.S. airspace on any given day, it’s a big job.

Mrs. Griffith is a supervisor at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Herndon, which oversees all air traffic control operations for the nation.

It’s a high-stress occupation that barely allows her time for lunch or dinner. Sometimes she arrives at the command center, which is housed in a leased office building near Washington Dulles International Airport, before dawn. Other days her shift begins late in the evening.

But for Mrs. Griffith, 49, it’s one of the most rewarding jobs she’s had in her 26-year career with the agency.

“We do basically whatever it takes in this room to ensure the nation’s [aviation] operations run smoothly,” she said. “It’s a fascinating job.”

Her “office” is a cavernous, windowless room that looks straight out of a Hollywood movie set. Banks of computers are lined up in front of 11 cinema-size screens that continually flash data tracking the number of planes in the air, the weather, airport runway capacities and other vital statistics that help keep America’s skies running smoothly.

As a “first-line” supervisor, Mrs. Griffith has duties that vary from shift to shift. Some days she may work with airlines and airports to reroute air traffic disrupted by a snowstorm. Other times she must devise a solution to alleviate runway congestion at a particular airport. And other days she may be asked to fix routes and schedules at a tiny but seasonally busy airfield near a Rocky Mountains ski resort.

“You’re running around the room all the time; it’s not often you can just sit,” she said. “It’s different every day. The busier it is, the faster the day goes. But slow is actually good, because slow means everything nationally is going well.”

Like many of the flights she helps re-route during a storm, Mrs. Griffith’s path to the command center hardly took a straight line. As a child in suburban Chicago she dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. Then after earning a bachelor’s degree in environmental science at the University of Illinois, she spent a few years as a health inspector.

But after a couples of years picking through restaurant kitchens, she began searching for another profession. “Nobody’s happy when the health inspector shows up,” she said.

Then in 1981, when President Reagan fired thousands of striking air traffic controllers, who as federal employees were legally barred from walking off the job, she saw her opportunity.

“I called [the FAA] the same day Reagan fired the controllers,” she said. “They actually told me they didn’t have any openings.”

But soon afterward, she was hired and spent several years as a controller in Rockford, Ill., and at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

When her husband, also a controller, was transferred to Washington in 1996, she took a job at FAA headquarters downtown.

After more than eight years of administrative duty, however, Mrs. Griffith was anxious to return to the operational side and transferred to the command center in February 2005.

“When I worked in finance downtown, we were working on three-year budgets,” she said. “But here [at the command center], it’s all about right now. Things here are actually happening in real time.”

Mrs. Griffith, who plans to work until she’s 55 — the first year she is eligible for full retirement benefits — said she still gets excited about going to work.

“There’s certainly a science to what we do, but there are a lot of opinions that factor into it, too,” she said. “At the end of the day, you know whether you’ve done a good job or not.”

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