Crumbling Infrastructure in the Skies
At any given moment, some 5,000 planes are cruising in the busy U.S. airspace. Shepherding an aircraft from departure to destination involves an intricately choreographed series of handoffs, starting with local controllers who direct taxiing, takeoff, and initial climb. When planes reach 1,000 feet, another set of eyes takes over in the darkened rooms of Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), which is in charge of air traffic within a 40-mile radius of an airport. Once an aircraft hits an altitude of 10,000 feet or more, it is switched to one of 21 regional air traffic control stations across the country, at which point it is slotted into a series of fixed flight lanes in the sky and passed along from station to station until it is on approach to its arrival airport. There, another local crew orchestrates descent and landing.
Unfortunately, the system that controllers use to talk to pilots is essentially a turbocharged Smokey and the Bandit–type CB radio. As a consequence, transmissions can become muddled or even incomprehensible if another pilot gets on the same frequency by mistake. “They’re using a voice communications system that should have been replaced years ago,” Goglia says.
Even worse, the aircraft tracking system is based not on satellite surveillance but on crude, 1950s-style radar technology that gives controllers only an approximate idea of where a plane is at certain times. (For planes within 40 miles of a tower, radar tracking is precise, but when planes head out to sea things get fuzzy.) That means huge safety buffer zones are needed between aircraft. The FAA mandates at least 1,000 feet vertically and three to five miles horizontally in good weather, and up to four times that spacing when conditions are bad. If planes wander outside their assigned airspace, midair collisions could result.
As if that were not enough, radar and radio outages occur with alarming frequency. In at least eight instances last year, malfunctions at several major airports brought operations to a standstill, triggering a cascade of delays and flight cancellations across the country. The most notable of these occurred at an FAA center near Atlanta in August 2008, when the computer system that processes flight plans went down. Elsewhere, in one 24-hour period last summer, equipment failures crippled two of the country’s busiest air traffic control facilities—Southern California TRACON and Miami Air Route Traffic Control Center, the latter responsible for 400,000 square miles of airspace and much of the air traffic between the United States, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. In the California facility, part of the FAA’s telecommunications infrastructure went down and the backup lines did not kick in, leaving controllers without radar or radio for nearly an hour during the afternoon.
“You lose your eyes and ears,” says veteran controller Melvin Davis, a National Air Traffic Controllers Association facility representative for Southern California TRACON, which serves a dozen major airports and 32 smaller ones. “If the outage had occurred during peak flying hours, the damage to the public would have been incalculable,” he adds, citing delayed flights at the very least, airport gridlock throughout the region, and heightened risk of crashes.
Finally, nearly 60 percent of the FAA’s control towers have surpassed their expected useful lives of 30 years. They are plagued by water leaks, mold, and foggy windows that can make it difficult to see aircraft, according to a December 2008 audit conducted by the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General. Outdated heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems in some major airports—such as Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway, and even Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, the home of Air Force One—cause condensation to form on windows, hampering controllers’ ability to look out at planes on the field. Yet plumbing and electrical repairs often go undone, resulting in a deferred maintenance backlog of $240 million, a tab that is expected to climb to more than $380 million by 2020. Creaky physical conditions at U.S. airports are reminiscent of those in developing nations. Controllers in Atlanta have had to hold umbrellas over radarscopes to see the planes.
Collision warning devices installed aboard aircraft create a cushion of safety against all these insults. But the growth in air traffic, coupled with slipups by pilots and controllers, has sparked a spike in anticollision warnings aboard the planes, especially in dense traffic areas such as Southern California, where the number of potentially serious controller errors rose 77 percent from 2007 to 2008. In March 2008, for instance, an American Airlines Boeing 757 en route from Mexico to Southern California was mistakenly put on a collision course over the Pacific Ocean with a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 taking off from John Wayne International Airport in Orange County. In another incident just three months later, an Air Tahiti wide-body jetliner flying out of Los Angeles nearly crashed into a small private plane flying two miles above the ocean.
When aircraft are traveling at 600 miles an hour, every second counts. “It can take 15 seconds to recognize there’s a problem, 15 seconds to radio instructions to the pilot, and an additional 15 seconds for them to respond,” says Don Brown, who was an air traffic controller in Atlanta for 25 years. “Near midair collisions are like rolling the dice. Once you get within a certain distance, it’s in the hands of God—how well you can see and how fast you can act—as to whether the planes will collide.”
A series of events leading to catastrophe can easily snowball, with the greatest danger occurring during takeoff and landing, the most hazardous stages of flying. In fact, the world’s worst airline disaster happened on a runway in Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, in 1977, when a KLM pilot at the helm of a Boeing 747 mistakenly thought the controller had cleared him for takeoff and his plane slammed into a Pan American 747 taxiing on the same runway. The accident killed 583 people.