July 19, 2000

The scariest thing about the deterioration of commercial airline service, both nationwide and at O'Hare International Airport, is that the key players seem unwilling to fix the problem.

United Airlines, for instance, has shown it would rather cancel flights and enrage its customers than deal decisively with malcontent pilots who, to make a point, refuse to work overtime.

The City of Chicago, the landlord at O'Hare, has shown it would rather jealously guard contract patronage and political control than plan for the long-range aviation needs of northeastern Illinois.

The worst, though, is the Federal Aviation Administration. This is the agency that is supposed to be above politics and profit, leading the way to a safer and more efficient air-traffic system.


It's not bad enough that the FAA is years behind in modernizing an air-traffic control system that has not changed substantially from the early days of radar. It is not bad enough that brand new jetliners with computerized avionics are still tethered to a wait-your-turn-and-stay-in-line route system, one that relies on ground-based radar beacons rather than satellite-based global positioning systems.

Now the FAA has labor problems. Again. Not as bad as 1981, when President Ronald Reagan called their bluff and fired 12,000 air-traffic controllers. But serious enough so President Bill Clinton's FAA feels the need to lie about it.

How else to explain the FAA's blaming "strong upper-altitude winds" for Monday's spate of three-hour delays at O'Hare? When, in fact, the weather was close to ideal. And when, as reported by the Tribune's Jon Hilkevitch, the real reason was a snit being thrown by controllers at the Elgin tracking facility to protest "threatening and demeaning" working conditions.

Seems FAA middle managers have been disciplining scope watchers who let descending aircraft get within two miles of each other. So just when a team of FAA inspectors showed up, the controllers stretched the intervals to four miles, which cut O'Hare's plane-handling capacity by a third, which caused a ripple effect of flight delays and cancellations.

That ought to show those FAA foremen.

It also ought to show Mayor Richard Daley and the Illinois congressional delegation that the FAA, under chief administrator Jane Garvey, cannot be trusted to tell the truth, much less help solve O'Hare's capacity problems.