Jon Hilkevitch

July 31, 2000

A question for air travelers: When was the last time you got off a plane and walked across the airport to the locked door at the base of the air-traffic tower, picked up the red phone and said, "I just wanted to stop and thank the air-traffic controllers for getting me here safely today and for the straight-shot into Chicago"?

OK, me neither. The cops might take you to a hospital psycho ward for trying.

Even during the second-straight summer of extraordinary flight delays and frustrations, airline passengers and pilots still manage to thank each other at the end of trips. But the air-traffic control profession, which has never fully recovered in the public eye from the illegal strike in 1981 that led President Ronald Reagan to fire 12,000 union controllers, tops the aviation industry's list of thankless jobs.

A remarkable achievement by the Federal Aviation Administration's controllers working inside the tower at O'Hare International Airport has been lost in the recent news over a work slowdown by some controllers at an FAA radar facility in Elgin and similar allegations against controllers in Denver.

Getting Around congratulates the O'Hare controllers for handling more than 1 million arrivals and departures without making a single mistake.

The dedication of the controllers has earned the O'Hare tower crew the FAA's National Air Traffic Facility of the Year Award.

The streak at O'Hare, which commercial pilots consider one of the safest, if not also most complex, airports in the world, covered Feb. 25, 1999, to April 13, 2000. A mistake--referred to as an operational error--while considered serious, rarely leads to an accident or a near-collision. It occurs when the required minimum vertical or horizontal spacing between airplanes is violated.

"O'Hare's controllers make so few errors because they help each other out before a situation is allowed to progress into an operational error," said Peter Salmon, the air-traffic manager at the O'Hare tower. "The controllers just love handling airplanes. Their strong work ethnic pulls them through the good days as well as the stormy days when you can't see a thing out the window and you are relying strictly on the radar and what the pilots report."

Chicago Aviation Commissioner Thomas Walker praised the men and women in the tower, saying: "It is great to see the O'Hare controllers get this award. The city congratulates them all for the exemplary record."

The FAA judges air-traffic facilities competing for the award based on nine criteria, including professionalism and employee morale, in addition to the technical skills needed to efficiently manage more than 2,500 flights a day at O'Hare. At peak periods, there are three or more takeoffs and landings per minute at the airport.

On O'Hare's entry in the national competition, Salmon wrote: "Unlike more modern high-density airports such as Atlanta Hartsfield and Dallas-Ft. Worth, O'Hare is uniquely challenged to accommodate a tremendous volume of aircraft on an airport built in the 1950s. O'Hare relies on creativity, foresight and the immeasurable talent, professionalism and dedication of its employees."

Craig Burzych, the president at O'Hare tower of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said O'Hare operates best when controllers and pilots are pressing the envelope.

"O'Hare does the best when everyone is hustling and we are moving 180 or more airplanes an hour," said Burzych. "It's like a dance. If we're not dancing, it can get real ugly."