Slam and Jam

For all the reports of equipment failures and "close calls" and controller burnout, the nation's air-traffic-control system is in fact far less precarious, in terms of safety, than people imagine it to be. The real threat to the system's integrity has as yet received little attention


THE runways of Newark International Airport now rank among the most heavily used in the world. Day after day, night after night, in good weather and in bad, the airplanes bear down on them. Their traffic is relentless. Drivers on the adjacent New Jersey Turnpike can count on the distraction: the procession of lights inbound to the runways, the graceful touchdowns, the taxiway parades, the miraculous banked, nose-high departures. The view provides a measure of changing times. The equipment out there is complex, capable, even exotic—but the sheer quantity of it is what seems most impressive. Flying is up, and nowhere more so than in the New York metropolitan area. The big orange radar that stands beside the turnpike never stops turning.

The radar sweeps the sky beyond the eye, helping to keep watch on the intertwined arrivals and departures at New York's three major airports. The first two airports, LaGuardia and Kennedy, each handle a third of a million flights annually, and Newark, which used to be called Sleepy Hollow and is still commonly thought of as a lesser airport, is in reality now even busier than the others, accounting for nearly another half-million flights a year. Because jets fly fast and turn wide, these three airports, which once stood distinctly apart, now lie atop one another. Adding to the tangle, each of the region's smaller airports—White Plains, Teterboro, and Islip, to name but three of them—produces its own heavy flows of traffic, while just overhead pass flights cruising to and from Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. The result is the most crowded airspace in the world.

It is because of this congestion that I chose New York to explore my impression, gained nationwide as a working pilot, that many of the public's concerns about air-traffic control—that the equipment is dangerously old, that safety is compromised, that poorly monitored aircraft threaten to collide in midair—are largely unwarranted. Certain elements of the air-traffic-control system should be cause for concern, I believe, but these relate to efficiency and morale rather than public safety.

The problem with making this argument, and with getting at the authentic problems facing air-traffic control, is that people simply refuse to believe it. If there is one thing that nearly everyone can agree on, it is that air-traffic control is critical to the safety of flight. Decades of movies and news reporting have contributed to the idea that controllers "guide" airplanes, that the task allows no room for error or inattention, that controllers must have superhuman reflexes and cool nerves, that only split-second timing and fast computers keep disaster at bay, that passengers' lives hang in the balance—and that the work of air-traffic controllers as a consequence is impossibly burdensome. These images jibe so neatly with people's instinctive distrust of flight that they have acquired the force of an accepted reality and have become the necessary starting point for any conversation about air-traffic control.

The plain truth, however, is that this "reality" is something of a myth. You will never hear it being punctured by the controllers, in part because the myth gives them leverage with the public. To be sure, we must on no account brush aside the potential for accidents in flight. Concern for safety is the bottom line of all aviation—in the cockpit as well as in the control room. But within air-traffic control, concern for safety functions narrowly, atop a high level of safety provided already by pilots and aircraft designers. Mistakes by controllers have led to accidents, but only as one link in a chain of unfortunate events. Air-traffic control's main function is to provide for the efficient flow of traffic, and to allow for the efficient use of limited runway space—in other words, not primarily to keep people alive but to keep them moving.

If you equated the job with juggling you would be only half right. Like jugglers, controllers are practiced at handling constellations of flying objects. There is, however, an important difference. When jugglers get distracted, their constellations tumble to the ground. But when controllers make mistakes, or lose their radar or radio, the airplanes continue to fly. Even if these jugglers were to stop suddenly and walk away, the elements of the constellations would on their own eventually slow down, take in the situation calmly according to a variety of routine procedures, and discover places where they could all land softly. Imagine juggling in a low-gravity world using smart balls that knew how to navigate and to talk to one another, and could find ways not to collide. That, though simplified, is a more accurate picture of the worst-case environment of air-traffic control.

Of course, once the balls land, they will not rise again without the juggler. That, too, is the nature of air-traffic control. Controllers have to juggle well, and willingly, in order to keep the rapidly growing air-transport system aloft. And only the most persistent glad-talker would deny that over the past decade controllers have had difficulty, for whatever reasons, in living up to the demands placed on them. The consequences are serious, if perhaps not for safety then for the web of commerce that an efficient aviation system sustains. But air-traffic control's core problems are both less tangible and more difficult to resolve than most people imagine. Yes, hardware should be modernized, and in theory new airports could be built to relieve the growing congestion, but air-traffic control's greatest weakness is cultural and organizational, and will not yield to the microchip and the dollar.

This failing lies deep in the soul of the Federal Aviation Administration, an agency divided into two mutually antagonistic cultures, management and the working controllers, each with its own traditions and memories. The FAA has other problems as well, of course. It has been accused of wastefulness and stupidity, and has been held partly responsible for recent airline crashes, because of its role in certifying airline and airport operations. In response it has promised to streamline itself and to pay closer attention to detail; Congress has decreed other changes. But such reforms, to the extent that they touch it at all, only brush the surface of air-traffic control, a highly individualistic profession in which discontent now rises like a specter from the past.

Sixteen years have passed since the great controller strike of 1981, when Ronald Reagan fired most of the air-traffic-control work force and destroyed their union, giving the FAA the opportunity to build afresh. There is, however, a new union now, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, and although its concerns and activities receive almost no public attention, its members are coming to be as angry as the people they replaced.

The Radar Room

ON a first visit to the cavernous radar room of New York Approach, the noise, commotion, and apparent chaos seem to validate the worst fears about air-traffic control. Certainly air-traffic control has become more dynamic than it was in days gone by—the days of men with crew cuts and white shirts, holding binoculars and saying "Roger." Controllers today wear T-shirts and jeans, and have adopted the swagger of the street. This place called New York Approach, which has responsibility for the low altitudes above the entire metropolitan area, is situated away from the airports, half an hour past Kennedy on Long Island. It is known throughout the world of aviation for the fury of its controllers, especially those assigned to the Newark sector, who work in a condition of permanent frenzy—shouting, complaining, joking, staring at their screens with gum-chewing concentration, swearing at their supervisors, punching the keyboards, gesturing when the radio transmissions of the pilots do not match their pace.

This is the sort of intense activity cited in cases of controller burnout, and it obscures the actual functioning of air-traffic control, making it difficult to penetrate. As a pilot, I had the advantage of speaking the language: I spent days there following the technical details, and came away feeling that the intensity was mostly self-induced, and was in fact what the controllers thrived on. The opportunity to indulge in it seemed, in fact, to be what had drawn them to the job. Keep in mind, too, that this was New York, where intensity is a way of life: like other New Yorkers, the controllers complained about the pressure on them, but largely because they would have been embarrassed not to. They complained also about the food in the cafeteria, the condition of the roads, and life on Long Island. One man finally admitted, "How can you go home from this and be satisfied mowing the lawn?" For a controller, this was practically a declaration of love. About the only time the controllers seemed genuinely upset was when they talked about the FAA.

Presented by

William Langewiesche

"Enclosed are Two Pieces on Algeria." With those words, typed on plain white bond, William Langewiesche introduced himself to the editors of The Atlantic Monthly. Although neither piece quite stood on its own, the editors were drawn to the unusual grace and power of Langewiesche's writing and sent him on assignment to North Africa for a more ambitious piece of reporting. The result was the November 1991, cover story, "The World in Its Extreme"—his first article to appear in a general-interest magazine. (He had, however, written frequently for aviation magazines; he is a professional pilot and first sat at the controls of an airplane at the age of five.) Since that article, from which his book Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert (1996) grew, Langewiesche has reported on a diversity of subjects and published four more books.

A large part of Mr. Langewiesche's reporting experience centers around the Middle East and the Islamic world. He has traveled widely throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, reporting on such topics as the implementation of the shari'a in Sudan under Hassan al-Tarabi, North Africa's Islamic culture, and the American occupation of Iraq. Other recent assignments have taken him to Egypt, the Balkans, India, and Central and South America. In 2004 he won a National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.

In 2002 his book American Ground: Unbuilding The World Trade Center was published. It is based on a series of three cover stories he wrote for The Atlantic as the only American reporter granted full access to the World Trade Center clean-up effort. His latest book, The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, was published in May 2004.

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