Skip to main content

Dead Reckoning

Air Traffic Control, System Effects, and Risk

Dead Reckoning

Air Traffic Control, System Effects, and Risk

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 understanding 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.

640 pages | 16 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2021

History: History of Technology

Sociology: Formal and Complex Organizations, Occupations, Professions, Work, Social Institutions

Transportation: Aviation


"From the dead reckoning of early navigation with its reliance on sun, stars, and wind, Vaughan develops her analysis of the present-day work of an air traffic controller, which involves an increasingly high degree of automation with consequent loss of skills and many controllers’ jobs. Drawing on interview data, Vaughan illuminates what has made air travel so safe by examining the large sociotechnical systems in which work is performed, focusing on the changing nature of organizations, technologies, and work. Recommended."


"Diane Vaughan’s Dead Reckoning: Air Traffic Control, System Effects, and Risk shows exactly how organizational excellence is achieved through organizational member’s ongoing collaborative work undergirded by—and sometimes despite—organizational rules, political pressures, and other societal demands that shapes the external environment. The result is an excellent portrayal of what Daniel F. Chambliss once called the “mundanity of excellence” in complex organizations—showing how far from obvious, or mundane, it is."

Social Forces

"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

Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables

Part I: Beginnings
Chapter 1. Dead Reckoning
Why Air Traffic Control?
Introduction to the System: “A Monkey Could Do This Job”
System Effects on the Project
On Time and Discovery: Historical Ethnography and Socio-technical System History
The Architecture of This Book

Chapter 2. History as Cause: System Emergence, System Effects
A Formation Story
Precedent and Innovation: Boundaries and Boundary Work
The Age of Innovators: The Diffusion of Ideas, Networks, and Infrastructure Formation, 1880–1920
The Age of Organization: Controllers, Technologies, and Boundaries, Ground and Sky, 1920–1950
The Jet Age: Congestion, Technological Lag, and PATCO, 1950–1980
The Age of Conflict, Decline, and Repair: The Strike, NATCA, and Technological Glitches, 1980–2000
Dead Reckoning at the Turn of the Century: History, Boundaries, and Turf Wars in the Sky, 2000–2001

Part II: Producing Controllers
Chapter 3. From Skill Acquisition to Expertise
The Academy: The Screen, the Game, and Survival of the Fittest
The Facility: The Apprentice and the Trainer
The Subtleties of the Craft: Dead Reckoning

Chapter 4. Embodiment: The Social Shaping of Controllers
Carryover into Everyday Life
Fundamental Change: Becoming a Type A Personality
A Cultural System of Knowledge: Expertise, Embodiment, and Ethnocognition

Part III: Boundary Work: Airspace, Place, and Dead Reckoning
System Effects: Culture, Ethnocognition, and Distributed Cognition

Chapter 5. Boston Center and Bedford Tower
Boston Center
Bedford Tower

Chapter 6. The Terminal: Boston TRACON and Boston Tower
The TRACON: Boston Terminal Radar Approach Control
Boston Tower
The Terminal: Boston TRACON and Tower

Part IV: Emotional Labor, Emotion Work
Chapter 7. Mistake and Error: Emotional Labor
Close Calls
Having a Deal
Space, Place, and Boundaries: When Is a Deal Not a Deal?
Mistake and Error as System Effects: Crossing the Boundaries of Time and Social Space

Chapter 8. Risk and Stress: Emotion Work
Losing Control: Stress-Producing Conditions
The Social and Cultural Transformation of Risky Work
Culture, Cognition, and the Normalization of Risk and Stress
The Individual, the Group, and Cultural Devices

Part V: “That Little Frisson of Terror”
Chapter 9. September 11
Boston Center
The Command Center
Boston Center
Boston Tower
Bedford Tower
The Attacks: System Response and System Effects

Chapter 10. The War on Terror: Policing the Sky
Changing Boundaries: Restrictions, Translation, and Local Coordination
Police Work, Emotion Work
A Fragile Stability: 2002
The War on Terror: System Response and System Effects

Chapter 11. Symbolic Boundaries: Distinction, Occupational Community, and Moral Work
Formal Structure and Occupational Community
Status and Moral Work
Maintaining Moral Boundaries

Part VI: System Effects, Boundary Work, and Risk
Boundary Work as Power Work
The Intersection of Two Trajectories: Implementation, Budget Battles, Shutdowns, and Failures
The Liabilities of Technological and Organizational Innovation

Chapter 12. The Age of Automation: 2002–Present
Boston Tower and Boston TRACON
Boston Tower

Chapter 13. Continuities, Change, and Persistence
System Effects, Resilience, and Agency
Dead Reckoning: Coordinating Action and Anticipating Futures in Complex Organizational Systems


Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press