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
"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.