Dead Reckoning: Air Traffic Control, System Effects, and Risk (Hardcover)

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Vaughan unveils the complicated and high-pressure world of air traffic controllers as they navigate technology and political and public climates, and shows how they keep the skies so safe.

When two airplanes were flown into the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, Americans watched in uncomprehending shock as first responders struggled to react to the situation on the ground. Congruently, another remarkable and heroic feat was taking place in the air: more than six hundred and fifty air traffic control facilities across the country coordinated their efforts to ground four thousand flights in just two hours—an achievement all the more impressive considering the unprecedented nature of the task.

In Dead Reckoning, Diane Vaughan explores the complex work of air traffic controllers, work that is built upon a close relationship between human organizational systems and technology and is remarkably safe given the high level of risk. Vaughan observed the distinct skill sets of air traffic controllers and the ways their workplaces changed to adapt to technological developments and public and political pressures. She chronicles the ways these forces affected their jobs, from their relationships with one another and the layouts of their workspace to their understandings of their job and its place in society. The result is a nuanced and engaging look at an essential role that demands great coordination, collaboration, and focus—a role that technology will likely never be able to replace. Even as the book conveys warnings about complex systems and the liabilities of technological and organizational innovation, it shows the kinds of problem-solving solutions that evolved over time and the importance of people.

About the Author

Diane Vaughan is professor of sociology and international and public affairs at Columbia University. She is the author of many books including The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA, also published by the Press.

Praise For…

"Diane Vaughan’s famous analysis of the Challenger tragedy is followed here with a study of air traffic control. Vaughan really wants to know how it works and she succeeds. As a result she is in the right place, both physically and analytically, to explain what happened to a sky full of airplanes on 9/11. And Vaughan can write: just her introductory description of how she invaded the controllers’ domain is gripping. Like her Challenger book, this sets the gold standard."
— Harry Collins, Cardiff University

“With Dead Reckoning, Vaughan—a leading student of how organizations go wrong—studies an organizational system, the air flight control system for commercial aviation, with an extraordinary track record of getting things right. The author approaches her topic from every direction, seamlessly integrating organization theory and technology studies; analyzing how skill is embedded both in individuals and in workgroups but also how the institutional systems in which controllers live and with which they must interact shape their work; and, in a model of multi-method, multi-level research, combining multi-site ethnography with historical analysis spanning forty years and including such events as the PATCO strike and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The result is a breathtaking achievement, a comprehensive, analytically shrewd, and gracefully written study that explains the effectiveness of air flight controllers both in routine times and during crises.”
— Paul DiMaggio, New York University
Product Details
ISBN: 9780226796406
ISBN-10: 022679640X
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication Date: September 30th, 2021
Pages: 640