Blue dots (above) represent air traffic throughout North America; the bright images shaped like planes are flights headed for Chicago's Midway and O'Hare airports.

Gridlock is getting worse. The U.S. Transportation Department reported that the number of passenger complaints rose by 26 percent in 1998, and much of that increase was due to a growing number of delays. In February, U.S. Senators John McCain and Ron Wyden introduced the Air Traveler's Bill of Rights, which would require airlines to tell passengers the real reason for a delay. American Airlines chairman Donald Carty and Southwest Airlines chairman Herb Kelleher are calling for a reshaped air traffic control system that can better handle the increasing number of flights they are putting into the sky.

There may be no better place to sense the impact of the crowded skies than at the Fox Bluff Corporate Center, an office park in Elgin. Two and a half years ago, a $90-million state-of-the-art air traffic control center opened here at the end of Bowes Road, just beyond the Gibson Musical Instruments facility. Controllers at the center--known as the Chicago Terminal Radar Approach Control, or Tracon--serve as middlemen between the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center in Aurora, which directs air traffic across parts of eight states to within 40 miles of O'Hare, and the O'Hare Tower, which oversees landings and takeoffs and directs planes to the right gates. The stretch of sky within Tracon's control is where the action is.

Sitting on 15 landscaped acres, Tracon looks like two distinctly different buildings that have been jammed together. The rust-brown and yellow administrative half recalls an old-time college basketball arena, only with a better paint job. The radar room is enclosed in a big white box with six green metal trellises crawling up the outside. Unlike their counterparts at the O'Hare Tower, the Tracon controllers don't ever see the planes in the sky. Indeed, the radar room is windowless. Inside, banks of radar scopes and computer screens cast an eerie glow. Half of the 16,544-square-foot room is empty, allowing for future staff expansion. The spic-and-span spaciousness is a dramatic change from Tracon's previous home in the grubby basement of the O'Hare Tower, an area trapped by utility tunnels, pipes, and cables. In the old facility, controllers worked close enough together that everyone pretty much knew what everyone else was up to. In the new digs, controllers punch numbered intercom buttons to reach one another at any of the 36 workstations. Of course, when the radar goes down, no one needs to get on the intercom to explain what's happening. Loud voices work just fine.

Still staring at his crippled monitor, Tom Austin reaches up with his right hand and pushes a white button labeled qxm. His screen jumps back to life, albeit with a different view. QXM is the Midway Airport radar, located in Tinley Park, which serves as the backup for O'Hare. The equipment is identical to O'Hare's Air Surveillance Radar-9 (ASR-9), but because it does not reach as far north as the O'Hare radar, controllers are forced to slow traffic from that direction. Austin turns a dial to put O'Hare back at the center of his screen. Though he has maintained radio contact with his pilots, he is required to re-establish their position after switching radars.

This will not be the day disaster strikes. The ASR-9 is down for only 45 seconds, although by the time controllers have shifted back to it from the Midway radar, five minutes have elapsed. That might not sound like much, but the outage has the supervisors leery, particularly with only two parallel runways open for arrivals. Under normal conditions, controllers can land planes simultaneously on parallel runways, even though that requires planes arriving from opposite directions to fly toward each other before turning onto their approach paths. But with a gimpy radar system, the supervisors decide to stagger landings, one runway at a time. That will cut landings from 72 an hour to 32, resulting in delays that ripple through the country's airports. Someone from Philadelphia missing a connection to Los Angeles might have the brief outage--later attributed to a problem in the radar's electrical panel--to blame.

The ASR-9 is the FAA's best radar, but this wasn't the first time it had malfunctioned. Last October a modem glitch took the ASR-9 down, and Midway's radar with it. Controllers were forced to use O'Hare's 30-year-old ASR-7, a system the FAA had declared "unusable."

"Somehow, somewhere, we need to get ourselves a better radar system," says Kurt Granger, president of Local C-90 of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). "There is an unacceptable margin of error at Chicago O'Hare." To hear Granger tell it, the FAA is the luckiest agency in the federal government, saved from disaster only by heroic controllers forced to work with shoddy equipment. His greatest fear is the day the luck runs out--and a controller gets the blame.

The equipment controllers use is often old and must soon be upgraded to handle the growing volume of air traffic, says David Hopkin, a professor of psychology at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, and the author of Human Factors in Air Traffic Control. "The current system can't really begin to handle it," he says. But the impact is on efficiency rather than safety, he adds, because the skills of the controllers have overcome equipment glitches.

The FAA acknowledges that air traffic may have to slow down at times due to computer problems, but officials insist safety isn't compromised. Granger, though, wants a second ASR-9 as a backup. It tops his wish list--ahead of increased salaries, benefits, and staffing. He's not likely to get it, although the FAA is promising an ASR-11--now in development--by 2001. But Granger isn't convinced that a new, untested system with new bugs to work out would be an improvement over what the controllers have now. The FAA, he says, is getting ahead of itself, after years of being behind.

Indeed, the FAA and Congress have a sorry history when it comes to modernizing air traffic control technology. It took a midair collision between jets from TWA and United Airlines in 1956 to stop Congress from regularly cutting the budget of the FAA's precursor, the Civil Aeronautics Authority, according to Michael Nolan, a Purdue University professor of aviation technology. The Kennedy Administration, in a concerted effort to develop a forward-looking system, created the Automated Radar Terminal System (ARTS), the basis for the software still in use today.

The biggest push since then was a planned nationwide deployment of the Advanced Automation System. The ill-fated billion-dollar network was supposed to provide controllers with new workstations equipped with advanced traffic management tools, enabling the FAA to merge many Tracons into en route centers that covered larger territories. But the system was a flop and was never deployed. "By the time the FAA had defined the standards, developed specifications, and awarded contracts, much of the technology under consideration was very often obsolete," Nolan wrote in his textbook Fundamentals of Air Traffic Control. Since then, the FAA has given up on the "big bang" approach of replacing its entire system, Nolan says, in favor of continuous improvement. But that hasn't solved its problems.

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