Eyes on the skies
By JEAN HELLER
© St. Petersburg Times,
TAMPA -- Laurie Zugay became a "big events" aviation person for the first time in 1996, when she went to work at the Federal Aviation Administration's regional office in Atlanta planning air traffic procedures for the Olympic Summer Games.
Four years later, Zugay had just become the No. 2 person in the air traffic control tower at Tampa International Airport when the job of supervising the planning for the aviation crush of the Super Bowl fell into her lap.
Zugay was appointed to the top job in the TIA tower in July. Two months later, on Sept. 11, acts of terrorism shut down the nation's aviation system for the first time in its history. Controllers had to deal with the largest crisis of their professional lives, getting planes out of the air and safely on the ground as quickly as possible.
While the terrorist attacks might have produced the most emotional impact, Zugay says the Super Bowl was her biggest challenge.
"The Super Bowl was my trial by fire," she said recently. "From a sheer logistical standpoint, planning for more than 1,000 planes coming and going for a long weekend, that was huge."
Zugay recalled the challenges as she took one of the few breaks she has had from work since Sept. 11, a lunch away from the FAA facility at TIA. But she didn't go far. She sat where she could see the control tower from the restaurant window.
The FAA has forbidden Zugay from talking publicly about the events of Sept. 11 or the aftermath of the plane crashes in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. She can't describe what she and her staff did, how they felt or what sort of reaction they heard from the crews of aircraft powering their way onto TIA's runways.
But she does acknowledge that last Tuesday, after spending nine straight days in the office for far longer than her normal 10 to 11 hours, she hit a wall.
"I was really tired, really tired," she said. "Eventually, I got a second wind, but I have that kind of headachy feeling you get from tension."
Although Zugay is prohibited from talking about Sept. 11, others aren't.
"From everything I've heard, she and her staff did very well," said Louis Miller, executive director of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority. "We got 42 airplanes in here immediately after the attacks, some that weren't even supposed to be here, and she supervised an operation that got them all in smoothly and out again smoothly.
"Her experience here couldn't have been more of a challenge. You couldn't ask for two bigger events, the Super Bowl and the terrorist attacks, and both when you've just been appointed to new jobs."
For Zugay, 43, the new post as air traffic manager is the culmination of a love of aviation dating back to grade school when she and her younger sister would fly, without their parents, from Baltimore to Pittsburgh to visit an aunt.
"When I was in the 11th grade, my mother told me I should decide what I wanted to do with my life, and I told her I wanted to be a pilot," Zugay said. "So she hauled me off to a small field near Beltsville (Md., where she grew up), and we took a test flight together. I loved it."
She turned down a college scholarship to work to finance her flying. She got her instrument rating, which airline pilots must have, but her dream to sit in the cockpit of a jet was short-circuited.
"President Reagan fired the air traffic controllers in 1981, and airlines were furloughing pilots, and I looked at working for the FAA," Zugay said. "It was an aviation job."
She went to work first as a controller in the en-route center in Atlanta, directing aircraft in the skies between their departure and destination airports. Next came the Olympics assignment, during which she earned a professional aeronautics degree from Embry-Riddle University in Daytona Beach. Then came Tampa International Airport.
When Zugay became the air traffic manager, she became the seventh woman to hold the post in the Southeast region of the FAA, where there are a total of 57 towers. In addition to the TIA tower, where Zugay supervises 86 controllers and other staff, her jurisdiction extends to airports as far north as Brooksville, as far south as Fort Myers, as far east as Winter Haven and west through Pinellas County.
Airports within that area chalked up 600,000 departures and 600,000 landings last year.
"It's stressful work, but it's good work," she said.
One of Zugay's less public challenges was to improve what had been rocky relationships with two unions representing FAA employees, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and the National Association of Government Employees. So far, she gets good marks.
"She's doing fine so far," said Joe Formoso, head of NATCA here. "She's very professional."
When Zugay became acting tower chief late in 2000, TIA was in the middle of revising some procedures for aircraft takeoffs and landings.
"The first meeting we had with Laurie, she brought some of her controllers with her," Miller said. "They had found some problems with the new plan, and she brought them in to be heard. Her predecessors never would have done that."
Miller also said that for Zugay to have risen to tower chief in just 19 years with the FAA is an unusual accomplishment. She attributes her focus to her father, a carpenter.
"When I was in the second grade, he started building a house for us," she said. "He did all the work himself, from the basement up. We moved in when I was in the fourth grade, and only the living room was finished, so we lived in the living room. Until he finished the kitchen, we ate from a hot plate. He did that house one room at a time.
"I learned that if you work hard and stay focused, you can accomplish anything."
Despite the stress of the job, Zugay is quick to urge those interested in aviation to learn more about air traffic control positions from the FAA's Web site: www.faa.gov. "After the controllers were fired in 1981, the FAA hired a lot of new people, and they're going to be retiring about 2006," she said. "It's a great time to be getting into the business."
Not to mention that controller jobs at TIA pay between $60,000 and $100,000 a year, depending on years of service and previous positions.
As Zugay remembered the crises she has seen, she recalled that she had to go through a series of interviews, evaluations and tests to qualify for the TIA job. One of the tests measured how well candidates react to crisis stress.
"They had one crisis after another coming into my in-basket," she said. "They were all bad. They all required a lot of decisions."
Was there a scenario where four large commercial aircraft crash on the same morning, three of them into occupied buildings?
"Not that," Zugay said. "That would have been too farfetched."
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