Trouble in the skies

May 23, 2000

Though it has lost its Busiest Airport in the World title, O'Hare International still handles nearly 900,000 takeoffs and landings each year. Chicago's main airport holds a good safety record, free from catastrophe since 1979's American Airlines Flight 191 crash that killed 273. Still, a report in the Sunday Sun-Times about air traffic controllers seeing "ghost planes" on their radar screens is a bit unnerving. "Ghost planes" do not exist, but prompt controllers and pilots to make adjustments.

The Federal Aviation Administration is not overly alarmed, suggesting that this is a weekly occurrence. An FAA spokesman says construction towers or building cranes sometimes are the cause. Controllers, working out of west suburban Elgin, believe the culprit is faulty equipment. Labor relations often make questions over O'Hare murky. The subtext of the "ghost plane" complaint is that controllers are angry over efforts by the FAA to test a different scheme in directing air traffic. Under that plan, planes are "stacked" vertically in the sky in an effort to reduce delays. Still, when controllers say that ghost planes are "complete terror" for controllers, it is hard to argue otherwise.

One thing is clear, though, no matter which side of the labor question one might be on: Ghost planes do appear on radar screens. The FAA is working on a computer patch to fix the situation and acknowledges that Elgin is experiencing technical problems with its software.

The controllers want any testing on stacking planes to stop until software problems can be fixed. We concur. Better that computers crash than planes.