Crowded skies: Flights from around the Midwest converge on O'Hare, which handled 897,000 takeoffs and landings last year.

Last year was the safest in U.S. aviation history, the first ever without a death due to an accident. But with the number of flights expected to double over the next decade, air traffic controllers warn that gridlock in the sky--already a strain on their outmoded equipment and a cause of delays--is raising the potential for disaster

The gray January morning starts routinely for Tom Austin, an air traffic controller who is guiding red-eye flights from the West Coast toward runway 14L at O'Hare International Airport. But by nine o'clock, the day is getting complicated. Just before a rush of big jets from the east arrives, a dense fog shuts down two of O'Hare's six runways. Meanwhile, because of gusting southerly winds, Midway Airport is using only one runway--the one that sends planes right into O'Hare's airspace.

Working at a control center in Elgin, Austin helps manage air traffic in the crowded skies within 40 miles of O'Hare. His job is to get the planes into position to land safely while hewing as closely as possible to federal rules: Aircraft inside the airport's 40-mile radius must be separated by at least three miles horizontally and 1,000 feet vertically. If he spaces the planes farther apart, Austin is wasting precious airspace, costing passengers time and airlines money. And if the planes are bunched closer than the prescribed limits--well, crowded skies are dangerous skies.

Gazing at the round screen in front of him--green dots, dashes, and numbers on a black background--Austin weaves planes up, down, and sideways through his piece of airspace, shooting faster planes into gaps like sports cars merging onto crowded interstates. The computer display is too sedate to resemble today's video games, but it's not Pong, either. If Austin tilts his head up at a 45-degree angle, he can check another computer screen for weather information, airport layouts, and instructions on what to do in case of a hijacking. He rarely looks up. At age 38, having been an air traffic controller for 17 years, most of what he needs to know is in his head; the rest is on his screen.

And right now, at 9:20, his screen is full. Thirty planes had been scheduled to land in the space of 26 minutes, five of them at the same time: American 1509 from Washington, D.C., Delta 1487 from Cincinnati, United 639 from Newark, American 1787 from Orlando, and American 309 from New York City. Each is in Austin's hands.

Austin doesn't know where these planes originated or when they're scheduled to land, and he

Click here to see charts of O'Hare's arrival and departure accuracy, and for a comparison of major airlines

doesn't care. It's first come, first served. But just when he has all the planes lined up for their final approaches, four new aircraft flash on his screen: American 2033 from Raleigh-Durham, United 1855 from Philadelphia, American 1411 from Tampa, and US Airways 1003 from Charlotte. Austin slows them down and puts them on indirect routes to the airport to keep them spaced properly. The planes are stacked up so high that Austin buys time by bringing the US Airways flight in from the northwest as close to O'Hare as he dares before turning it around to join the back of the line.

A few minutes later pilots from several planes report to Austin that there's ice at 7,000 feet. His thoughts flash to the American Eagle flight that crashed into an Indiana soybean field in 1994, killing all 68 aboard. The Eagle had been in a holding pattern, awaiting clearance to land at O'Hare, when too much ice accumulated on its wings. Austin relays the ice reports to other pilots and adjusts their altitudes.

About a dozen other controllers are coping with their own problems in the darkened radar room, guiding planes to and from Midway Airport and satellite airports such as DuPage and Palwaukee. There is a constant hum of chatter, as controllers instruct pilots and talk among themselves.

As Austin steers through the morning mess, his eyes suddenly fasten on the northwest quadrant of his screen. It has gone dark. Then his radar sweep dissembles into a jumble of pulsating lights. Half a dozen planes have disappeared. Five planes remain frozen on the screen, as if stopped in midair. Out in the real world, Austin knows, they're closing in at hundreds of miles an hour.

"The radar's out," Austin says, barely raising his voice. "The radar's out," other controllers echo to one another, each time getting a little louder. It's not panic, but for the first time this morning there is a sense of danger, the potential of tragedy. There are planes in the sky and the controllers can't see them.

The nation's first air traffic controller, Archie League, started operating in 1929 out of a wheelbarrow at the end of a runway at St. Louis Airport. A barnstormer and operator of a flying circus, League packed a beach umbrella, a chair, water, a note pad, colored flags, and his lunch,
wheeling the stuff out in all kinds of weather to advise planes whether to land (green flag) or circle (red flag).

It probably wasn't long before League began complaining about the government's inability to supply him with state-of-the-art equipment. Today's controllers often gripe about being modern incarnations of Archie League, working with technological wheelbarrows in an age when computerized jets can practically fly themselves. For years controllers have been telling frightening tales of inadequate radar, buggy software, and a bumbling Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Occasionally, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, will weigh in with a scathing report chronicling the FAA's incompetence in such matters as maintenance requirements, flight standards, inspections, and oversight.

And yet, accidents caused by a faulty air traffic control system have been extremely rare. There has never been a crash at O'Hare attributable to a controller or a controller's equipment. What's more, the U.S. aviation business achieved a milestone last year, carrying 615 million passengers without a single death due to an accident, the first year ever without a fatality.

Still, the potential for disaster will increase as airlines keep pouring more planes into the sky. Air traffic, already booming, is expected to double in the next ten years. In 1998, O'Hare handled 897,000 flights, carrying 72 million passengers (falling slightly behind Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport as the world's busiest). The city of Chicago projects that number will increase by almost 2 percent every year through 2012. Mayor Richard M. Daley plans to add two new terminals--but not new runways--at O'Hare, while continuing to resist a proposal for a third airport in Peotone. A day after Daley disclosed his O'Hare expansion plan in February, the Clinton Administration announced its desire to scrap the regulations that limit O'Hare to 155 flights an hour. Four days after that, the government came to an agreement with the Air Line Pilots Association to continue "land-and-hold-short operations," in which pilots promise to turn off runways after landing and before crossing an intersecting runway where other planes are taking off or landing. This allows for more frequent landings, which in turn allows for more flights.

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