Maury Z. Levy

Waiting for the Crash

In Philadelphia Magazine (1970-1980) on September 15, 2009 at 6:53 pm

If the men who bring the planes in
at Philadelphia International
say it’s unsafe,
maybe we should listen.


[Author’s note: The city of Philadelphia didn’t want me to do this story. I had to go undercover as an air traffic controller trainee to get access. The story cost the city many millions of dollars in new systems. And it won some awards. And, oh yes, it made the airport safe.]

LUCKY FOR US the sky is big. A few Saturdays ago, at that airport they call Philadelphia International, the radar went out. Not just the radar for one plane, the radar for the whole airport. Of course, those things happen at other airports. That’s why most major terminals —and Philadelphia is considered a very major terminal—have backup radar systems to kick on in an emergency like this. But a few Saturdays ago, at Philadelphia International, the emergency system didn’t kick on. It was dead.

Up in the sky, for a period of almost 15 minutes, there were 15 major aircraft, by official count, with maybe around a hundred people on each one, with maybe a couple of million people underneath them. The pilots of these planes have their instructions for situations like this. They are to keep their eyes open. And their fingers crossed.

There was that day, if you work it out with the complicated mathematics of vectors, the possibility of a number of different mid-air collisions. The people who keep track of these things, the people who watch the radar scopes at Philadelphia International, the people who are responsible for bringing these planes down and getting them back up again, are called air traffic controllers. And the air traffic controllers at Philadelphia International are not too happy a crew right now.

One of them, one of the guys who was in the radar room when the radar went out, had given up cigarettes over a year ago. He is now smoking two packs a day. We spoke to him and we managed to speak to a couple dozen of his co-workers—from fresh trainees to guys who’ve been there close to 20 years. They were all disgruntled, not just over the day the radar went out, but over conditions in general. The descriptions in this story of what goes on at Philadelphia International, of what the public never sees or knows about, are theirs. They agreed to let us put them on tape. And we agreed to keep most of their names out of this story. These guys are afraid for more than just the safety of the airport. They are afraid for their jobs.

“WHEN THE RADAR WENT OUT,” one of them says, “I’d just spotted two planes on converging courses at the same altitude. I couldn’t get in touch with those planes. I called the Wilmington airport and asked them to try to do it, but they were busy. And all the time I could picture that last vision of the scope, with 100 people on each airplane. And I could see the two planes coming together, and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.”

Luckily, and it was pure luck, the two planes just missed each other because, as the air controllers say, the sky is big.

“All we had,” another controller says, “were two radios on battery power. Only one frequency was usable. There are 20 or so frequencies we operate on and you need a one-for-one backup for each of those frequencies. We had one we could use.

“We have three sources of electrical power here, two commercial ones and our own generating system. And we still lost all the power in that failure. Not only our power, but our sources. We found out the reason the emergency generator didn’t kick on was because the lines had shorted out. They shorted out because they pass through a small concrete building that’s eight feet high. The building’s supposed to be maintained by the City. When we went to check it, it was four feet deep in water.” (City officials say that heavy rains make things tough all over, that there are many flooding situations to be corrected, and that they just hadn’t gotten to this one yet.)

The total power failure lasted between 14 and 15 minutes but a near emergency situation existed for at least five days. Only one of the commercial electrical service lines was restored. The airport was running on a single power line until late Wednesday of the following week. Which means that even after the power came back up that Saturday, there was still no emergency power backup. And when the night shift of traffic controllers came on that Saturday, someone forgot to tell them about that. And at 6:10 p.m. the power went out again.

“They were trying to repair it,” a controller on duty says, “and they hit the wrong switch and we went out for another five minutes. It was just luck that I had everybody on direct courses. Just dumb luck.

“Then they told us we were running a single power service. It bothered me for days, the fact that they didn’t tell me before I started lining all those planes up. If I knew we didn’t have a backup, I certainly would have done it differently. We were operating from Saturday night into almost Thursday again with no backup power. They said it was just an oversight.

“The Powers That Be are saying that this is just a minor pain in the ass. They tell this to the press and the public. If people only knew the possibilities involved in a 14-minute power failure. The number of people’s lives involved. You feel like you’re helpless.

“I guess we’re lucky there were only 15 planes involved. God only knows. When it was over, two planes called us on the phone to tell us they were on the ground. Now you tell me how they got there. We’re just lucky there’s a lot of sky.”

THE JOB OF AN AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER certainly seems hard enough without all the problems. Simply stated, the controller is to pick up each plane as a blip on his radar scope and give each plane a private corridor of air space. That corridor is supposed to be a safety zone of three horizontal miles and 1,000 vertical feet. The controllers in Philadelphia deal with all-instrument flightcraft that fly below 8,000 feet within a 60-mile circumference of the airport. And they also control radar operations for about 28 smaller airports in the area.

Philadelphia International is rated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as a top-level facility, right up there with Chicago’s O’Hare and New York’s JFK. The FAA is taking quantity here, not quality. The Philadelphia controllers handle about 1,000 planes a day, often more. But hardly anyone ever sees them.

Only a handful of them are up in the tower, the structure most people consider the command point of an airport. Actually, the tower only handles takeoffs and landings. The controllers up there handle only the planes they can see with their eyes. And that covers only a few miles of local airspace.

The rest of the crew, and most of the action, is downstairs in a small, dingy room with hardly any lights. Only the soft green glow of the eight radar scopes, four on each side, keeps an unaccustomed visitor from tripping over his own feet. Inside, the controllers sit, one or two per scope, and watch all the little blips come and go. A computer system tags most of those blips with identification codes that pop up automatically on the screen, telling the controller the name of the airline, its flight number, its position and its speed.

Assuming the computer is working right, the controller then knows which of the blips are planes and which are just ground interference. And he uses his headset and small microphone to talk to each of the pilots of those planes in a language that only they can understand. As he talks, the controller checks computerized flight data strips that give him even more information about each blip. And the pilots of those planes do what the controllers tell them to do. Nobody lands, nobody makes a move without direct instructions from the controllers.

The controllers, of course, are dependent on the radar to keep this giant jigsaw puzzle running. And many of them say the radar at Philadelphia International isn’t what it should be. They’re not even talking about the times it goes out completely. The momentary lapses are bad enough.

“Look at that,” one of the controllers yells, “I just lost a TWA 707. It was seven miles from the airport and it just disappeared from the scope. Whoops. There it is again. That’s great. It disappeared for three miles.”

It’s the little things like this that mount up to put an air traffic controller under an almost unbelievable amount of stress. There are medical studies that show controllers are subject to coronary attacks, hypertension and peptic ulcers with nearly four times the frequency of pilots. And you can multiply that a few more times if you’re comparing it to the average guy walking the street.

A recent study by the Academy of Air Traffic Control Medicine, an Illinois-based operation, showed that 32.5% of all controllers examined had ulcers induced by job pressure. No other occupational group has so great an incidence of ulcers.

And it should be noted that controllers are hired in the first place because they can handle more stress than the average man or woman. (There is only one female among the staff of 80 or so controllers and supervisors in Philadelphia.)

The controllers in Philadelphia have their own special complaints brought about by their own special problems. They say these problems arise because there is a desperate shortage here of fully-qualified controllers. And this causes a man to sit straining to concentrate behind a radar scope for hours at a stretch. Ideally, if there were enough people to go around, he shouldn’t be doing that. But he does, and it takes its toll.

“It’s terrible,” one says, “the stress and strain of sitting behind one of these scopes for four hours at a time. It could drive you crazy. I’ve come out of this room dripping wet even when the air conditioner is on. That’s how shaky you can get. And that’s dangerous. It sure as hell is.” (This man, by the way, was described by management as “one of the best we’ve got.”)

“Your efficiency drops automatically,” he says. “You don’t always consciously realize it, but it does. No man likes to admit you’re not the same as you were when you walked in there. But it’s been proven. You don’t realize it any more than you would when you’re driving a car. You know you’re tired but you think you can do it.

“It’s like reading a book. You’re most effective the first hour or so. After that, you might be reading the same paragraph over and over again. That’s the way it is when you’re working in a busy radar position. You’re effective for about an hour and a half. After that you lose your effectiveness.

“You’re telling guys things twice, and you’re dumping your work and it’s much harder to concentrate. And our contract states that, if it’s feasible, the guys should get relief from their positions at much shorter intervals than we get. Well, I feel it’s feasible, and we went to management as a union and told them that it wasn’t being done. They said they would look into it and take action. I haven’t seen any action.”

(The FAA defines relief as taking a man from a busy position and unplugging him and putting him to work at a less-busy position.)

“It starts to affect your whole life when you know you’ve got that many lives in your hands and you’re stuck behind a screen for hours without any kind of a break. I know what I’m going to run into, and my stomach starts to churn. I can’t even eat anymore before I come to work. I know what’s coming and I just sit there at home and smoke one cigarette after another. I try to prepare myself mentally. And sometimes I just can’t get my mind tuned to what I’m going into because I know I’ll be lucky if I get out for lunch and I’ll be lucky if I get a coffee break.

“When I get through work, there is physical and mental exhaustion and I feel it. I end up going to a bar and downing a couple of beers just to unwind. I just can’t go straight home and face my wife and kids in that condition.

“I’m 40 already and maybe I should consider myself lucky to have made it this far. I see my peers here running into these problems at a much younger age. We’ve got guys with heart problems at 35. Hypertension at 25. It’s crazy.” This controller has worked at other major airports and he, like many others who’ve also worked elsewhere, say the situation in Philadelphia is the worst they’ve seen.

Philadelphia International has grown tremendously in air traffic over the past few years. But the staff of fully-qualified controllers hasn’t. And that causes all kinds of problems and all kinds of union-management friction. And in this case, management is an arm of the U.S. government. Which means that these guys can bitch, but it’s illegal for them to strike. So their bargaining powers are highly limited and management has them by the short curlies.

“They tell the guys to bring their lunch with them,” a controller says. “That’s not right. Each guy in this world should get a few minutes away for lunch, to eat. They tell you to eat in position. Regulations say we don’t have a lunch hour. We work eight hours. If we’re lucky, they give us 20 minutes to go out and get a bite. If you bitch, they say, ‘Eat on position. Nobody goes out to lunch.’

“One guy who came here from another airport and has been here six months says he can’t believe it. At the other place, he told me, they got an hour for lunch and three or four coffee breaks, just to get out and clear their heads a little. He came from O’Hare in Chicago, which is just about the busiest airport in the world, and he says our guys work twice as hard as they do there.

“That’s just management’s attitude around here. They don’t seem to care. Some of the guys went to them and told them we didn’t even have time to go the bathroom sometimes. They told us they weren’t responsible for our physiological needs.”

“I actually got out to eat lunch the other day,” another controller says. “I figured this must be too good to be true. And it was. In the middle of my sandwich, they paged me to stop eating and get back up to the radar room.”

The bitches about working conditions are handled through the Professional Air Traffic Controllers’ Organization (PATCO) , a union that started in 1968. All but one of the controllers at Philadelphia International belong to it. And many of the problems at the airport fall into the union-management category. And that, of course, makes for two sides of any story. Management tends to write off things like these.

Mahlon Fuller, a young, bearded, outspoken guy who lives in Delaware, has been at Philadelphia International since PATCO started. He is now the union’s president.

“We had a new regime come in here over a year ago,” Mal Fuller says, “and we just don’t think they’re very sensitive to our problems. They feel we create mountains out of molehills. We feel we are creating mountains out of poor safety. We see the mountains as a possibility of people getting killed. They see it is as a bitch or gripe from us.

“Our livelihood depends on every passenger getting on those airplanes and getting to their destinations as quickly as they can. The more crap we have to put up with, the more things are forced to slow down. And everybody suffers. There are flights that originate out of other airports that could service people better by flying out of here. But they don’t want to come here because of this mess. It’s costing everybody.

“And we have nothing to gain, as far as the union is concerned, except a better system. We didn’t want shorter hours. We never ask for more money, even though a fully-qualified controller in charge of all those planes makes less than $25,000 a year, while a pilot taking orders from him makes two or three times that.”

Fuller says the root of most of the problems is a lack of experienced people. “Numerically speaking,” he says, “we have more than enough people. We have 81 control people on board. Of those 81, we have 10 supervisors who are ordered not to work radar positions. So that makes 71. The supervisors oversee the operation. We have 39 fully-qualified working controllers. One is on loan to New York. And we have 33 trainees.

In the darkness of the radar room, controllers sit for hours at a time tracking little coded blips.

“To be a fully-qualified controller, you must be expert in all radar positions. There are 16 of those positions. We usually end up with only eight to ten fully-qualified men on each shift. That just isn’t enough. These men are just unbelievably overworked.

“There was one man recently who was on the same position for a period of four hours. He had to be helped away. He was literally punch drunk. He couldn’t function effectively. We have review boards for that kind of thing and I was on his. And for a ten-minute period before and after the incident had been discovered the man had 147 different transmissions on his phone lines, which if you break it down would be one every six seconds. It’s amazing the computer could even handle that much.”

ONE NIGHT LAST SEPTEMBER, it didn’t. The radar room was short-staffed by three men. So the supervisor was forced to work with one of the journeymen. He couldn’t oversee the total operation. There was some trouble with the quality of the radar. And it was a very busy night for flying.

They’d been holding traffic since the day watch. Planes were backed up to Lancaster and Harrisburg trying to come into Philadelphia. And then the computer jammed. It got up to capacity and then it stopped accepting tags on any more planes. The radar screen was full of unidentified flying blips. The tags weren’t jumping out and identifying them. To add to it, the beacons on the runway weren’t working right. And communications with some auxiliary airports had been on and off all night. Planes were stacked up like cans of peas at 6,000 feet. The situation existed for a half hour. Thanks to the undermanned overload, a half dozen planes never got proper identification. There were a lot of very technical things involved. In plain language, six planes ended up heading for the same spot. There was a possibility of 24 mid-air collisions. The story never made the papers and the people on those planes never knew what could have hit them.

“WE HAVE THE EQUIPMENT,” a controller on duty that night says, “but it’s not maintained properly. And we have no dependable backup equipment. We’ve had several radio frequency problems. Five months ago I wrote an ‘unsatisfactory condition’ report. Nothing was done. The same reoccurring problem is still here and has been for over six months.”

To get better equipment, of course, you need more money. And that’s up to the FAA, a very carefully budgeted, rather tight-fisted organization. Meanwhile, some of the equipment is falling apart. On a recent visit there was one major generator that was being cooled by a window fan to try to keep it from overheating. Many problems are caused by just plain poor coordination, often between the FAA and the City. There is constant construction at the airport, usually in no orderly sequence. And that causes even more problems for the traffic controllers. Parking garages are now being built over and beyond concourses C and D. When they are finished, the men in the tower, the air controllers who visually take care of takeoffs and landings, won’t be able to see 3,200 feet of a 5,100 foot crosswind runway used for smaller planes. The parking garages are right in their line of view. It’s a planning disaster. It wasn’t supposed to be like that.

A new tower was supposed to be built, a tower that would have a clear view of the whole airport. But the FAA stalled on that and the city went ahead with the parking garages anyway. So now a temporary tower will have to be built out by the crosswind runway. And someone will have to be out there to staff it and relay information back to the main tower which will, in turn, have to relay its own information back the other way. It will be, by any account, an absolute mess. Even as things stand now, part of the approach to that runway is already blocked from the tower’s view by another building.

“It’s a very major problem,” a tower controller says. “It’s possible to have put one plane in position where you can’t see him. And that leaves you wide open for bringing in another one to pile right on top of him. You’ve just got to have full view.

“I was working up here about eight months ago and there was cross-traffic coming both ways and a small plane was ready to land on that runway. He came to rest at the end out there. He looked okay, and I turned to take care of the other five jets circling to land. Then I turned back to him and said, ‘Go ahead, Cherokee, go in for landing.’ And I took out my binoculars to watch him and I said to myself, boy, he looks like he’s riding very low. And then I saw he had no landing gear. He hit the runway and right down at the end of it there was this truck that had caught fire, and I saw that right away and grabbed the emergency box and closed the airport down.

“The fire crept along the runway. It was going as slow as a man walking. It took almost 15 minutes for it to reach the plane. It caught the tail end of the plane and I stood right here and watched the whole thing blow up sky high. There were nine people in that plane. Luckily, they had enough time to get out.

“And in all that time, the fire trucks didn’t get there. They were only coming across the field, a few hundred yards. But because of all this construction, they had to travel it like an obstacle course. And then the lead truck stalled in the middle of the runway.

“If those city trucks had been doing their job right, they would have gotten there in plenty of time. The damn thing would have never blown up. But I’m not allowed to criticize them.

“There isn’t a controller here who hasn’t come close to having an accident on that portion of the runway. I watch that runway like a hawk and I once put a plane on there when another was flying below that building, a plane nobody had talked to. He just decided he was going to land in Philly. And we’re looking around and couldn’t see him behind the building, so we put someone else in that position. And all of a sudden this guy calls up and says ‘How about me?’ I didn’t know who it was. He said, ‘I’m 100 yards from the runway.’ Luckily I picked him up in time or he would have plowed right into that other plane.

“You have to ask yourself, how many accidents do we need here before somebody starts to pay attention?”

“AIRPORTS,” HARRY BELINGER SAYS, “are like women. No two of them are alike.”
Harry Belinger, one of Frank Rizzo’s former newspapermen, is Philadelphia’s director of commerce. And the airport falls on his turf. He’s the one who’s got to go before City Council and fight for the money for all this construction. Harry Belinger says he’s never been in the tower or the radar room, so he doesn’t really know much about the problems of the controllers. But he does know about the problems of construction.

“The whole history of construction at the airport,” he says, “has been stop, stop, stop. Nothing ever seems to go in the right order. The FAA was supposed to put the new tower up and we were working on the new baggage and parking facilities. When we started our construction the tower should have started, too. But it didn’t. The FAA had budget problems or something. So now the new tower is at least two years away. Maybe more.”

Even though the FAA will be building it, the City will pay the major share for the tower. Costs are now estimated at $21/2 million for the City and $11/2 million for the FAA. Belinger, by the way, says he is aware of the blocked view from the tower. And he isn’t any happier than the controllers about the temporary setup that will have to be manned until the new tower gets funded and built. The construction problems and the work problems have been mounting up so badly against the controllers, many of them feel it’s only their overwork that’s kept a major catastrophe from hitting Philadelphia International so far. But the obstacles keep building up and their jobs aren’t getting any easier.

“It is,” one of them says, “like a surgeon operating with a rusty knife.
Our guys are making mistakes because they’re trying too hard not to make them.
Look, the records show that pilots complain a lot about this airport, a lot more than most. They feel the pressure, too, if we’ve got to keep them in holding patterns just to clear our heads. And they’re no more thrilled than we are when the radar goes out. But they don’t want to take the blame for it. And they shouldn’t.

“So the pilots come in here and they register complaints against us. And management just puts the pressure right back on us. They tell us we screwed up without hearing our end of it. It just shouldn’t be like that. We’re all here for one purpose—to bring planes in and out of here as safely as possible. We shouldn’t have to be choosing sides over that.”

All of this makes for poor morale. And the morale here is plenty poor. I can understand why. I get the feeling they think of me as a factory worker. At least that’s the way we get treated. And when morale is low, efficiency has to suffer.

“Every accident or near-accident we’ve had here has come when we’ve had guys who’ve been on position too long. After two hours straight, you’re not working at full mental capacity anymore. You’re more apt to make a mistake. If we were factory work­ers producing items like cardboard boxes or something, that might be fine. But we arc dealing with human lives here.”

The union has taken a pretty firm stand about management at the air­port. “It’s deplorable,” Mal Fuller says. “It’s non-existent. You call these guys up and they don’t even answer. You call down to the message center and give them the message and 15 or 20 minutes later perhaps, if you call again, they’ll answer you.

“The other night the runway lights went out and they were out for at least two hours, and it took at least a half hour to get hold of management to tell them. There’s just so much con­fusion at this airport.

“Like the confusion with the main­tenance trucks and the construction people is ridiculous. They go driving across the runway when airplanes are landing. One day there was a truck on the runway without any authorization. We had to instruct the plane that was landing to go around it. When we finally got the truck out of the middle of the runway so the plane could come in, the plane was landing and the truck was right back there behind him. Ridiculous things arc happening here.

“If we have any grievances or any­thing, we go to management. They tell you that you don’t really have a grievance and to get the hell out of here. You can’t do anything to the federal government to make people listen to you. All we want to know is where the hell is management when we need them?”

MANAGEMENT IS ON the second floor, next to the fancy restaurant. Bob Beckelman, a former controller in Washington, is facility chief, the main 111011.

You know how it is with unions,” Beckelman says. “They make moun­tains out of mole hills. We’ve just got too many doomsday artists in this place.”

Beckelman, who came here in July says things really aren’t as bad as the controllers say they are. “Sure there’s lots of pressure,” he says. “When you’re handling 1,000 operations a day, one or two will always go wrong at the wrong time. It’s like being a surgeon. Your timing must be very precise. And I’m sure that’s tough when you’re sitting in a dark room for eight hours at a time.

“But we change shifts every week. We have a total compliment of 100 people here. Actually, 84 can work the watch. And 38 of those are developmental trainees.

“I know about a lot of the complaints. They complain about lunch hours. Well, controllers work an eight hour day. Other government workers work an eight-and-a-half-hour day. That means the controllers are not supposed to have lunch. But we try to give them time anyway. In fact, I never saw a controller who didn’t have lunch.

“But we’re working on their problems. We have 70 effective control personnel. That’s an increase of 40% from when I came here. Now, they’re not all fully-qualified, mind you. But I think just about all of them are qualified on a minimum of five of the 16 positions.

“We do need more fully-qualified controllers here. But it takes two years to train them if you hire them off the street with just some aviation experience. But a real sharp guy wouldn’t have any trouble checking out in six months.”

This past September, Beckelman put out an interoffice memo listing what he saw as the major complaints of the controllers. There were 14 of them, everything from shortage of personnel to temperature control in the radar room.

“We are happy to report,” Beckelman said, “that these major items have all been either corrected or are well underway toward solution.”

The controllers aren’t so sure about that. “It’s a lot of doubletalk,” Mal Fuller says, ” ‘We’re working on it.’ That’s a great line. All we know is concrete results. And we haven’t seen too many of them. He says he’s increased our staff by 40% since he came here. He’s just playing with numbers. We had 31 fully-qualified controllers when he came. We have 35 today. All those trainees haven’t been going anywhere. We’re so busy, there’s no time to train them. You can ask them yourself.

“A couple of years ago, the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City closed. They said the country had enough controllers. Meanwhile, we had guys quitting, retiring, getting sick and we kept getting lower and lower. We were scheduled overtime. We never got our vacations. We had to work all the time. Six days a week. We were scheduled. We didn’t have a choice.

“Then all of a sudden the FAA realized they were spending more money on overtime than they were on salary. So they started the academy up again. But they didn’t have the controllers to train the trainees.”

“I happen to be a training instructor,” another controller says. “And I don’t know why I got appointed training instructor. I received no formal training whatsoever. They just came this airport is definitely unsafe. if the public only knew what went on, they wouldn’t fly here. Someone came up to me six months ago and said. ‘Hey, you’re a training instructor.’ I don’t know how to train people properly. I told them that. But they’ve got me doing it. And the trainees are the ones who suffer. Just ask them.”

We did.
”The trainee program,” one of them said, “is non-existent here. I went for two months without any training at all on radar. I had three years of service in the Navy when I came here. But it was all control tower time, not radar time. Right now, there’s a guy who’s beating my record. He’s gone over three months without any training at all. But I haven’t done much better. In the same three months, I’ve had three or four hours’ training.

“After a while, your head becomes so flat you don’t give a shit anymore. I don’t care now. I don’t study anymore. What’s the use?

“I’ve been here a year. I haven’t learned much about my job. But I’ve learned a lot about this airport.

“This airport is definitely unsafe. If the public only knew what went on at this airport, they wouldn’t fly out of here. I’ve seen airplanes fly over the top of other airplanes at 50 feet. I’ve seen airplanes climb through the altitude of other airplanes at less than a mile. It’s just a wonder that a major accident hasn’t occurred here yet.”

The young guys aren’t the only ones who are upset. Men who’ve worked at Philadelphia International for close
to 20 years are having trouble keeping calm lately.

“I’ve been here since 1956,” one of them says, “longer than anybody else. I don’t want to fight management, but they don’t give us any choice. We have a system here that’s running at 125% of its capacity. The controller looks around and says why am I doing this?

“We don’t consider ourselves factory workers. We’re all FAA. Benkelman and us. We don’t want to have people die and planes to crash before we get a decent system.

“It’s a macabre way of looking at it, but that’s the way management seems to see it. By history, the only way to make a change is to wait for people to be killed. We are saying, no, it can be different. We can change it now, before something happens.”

THERE IS LITTLE QUESTION that the system is bad. A recent study by the Aviation Safety Institute, an independent outfit out of Ohio, showed that both controllers and pilots found Philadelphia International to be one of the least safe airports in the country.

The report lists the many problems cited by the controllers—the working conditions, the bad radar, the construction. It also cites taxiway accidents and other near collisions. And then it sums up:
”These problems, coupled with frequently reported severe staffing limitations, make the Philadelphia Airport a prime candidate for a catastrophe.”

IT WAS AN AVERAGE DAY in the tower last month. A half dozen flights had just taken off in a few minutes. Only one of them was coming back. It was a Delta flight with a lot of people on board. It radioed back that its landing gear lights showed a malfunction. At the time, there was only one fully-qualified controller in the tower. He ran over and grabbed the red phone on the emergency box and ordered the airport shut down. Then he ordered the fire and disaster equipment to roll to the runway. Then he ran back into position and guided the plane back in. He was breathing very heavily, his face was turning red, you could see the veins in his neck. He guided the plane down safely and then he turned and gave a very big sigh.

“You know,” he said with a nervous laugh, “I’m the only one in this tower right now who was fully qualified to do that. And the only reason I’m here is because I didn’t take a lunch break. I hate to think what would have happened if I had to go to the bathroom.”

IT IS, OF, COURSE, not so funny. When the people who bring in the planes tell you the airport is not safe, there isn’t much to laugh about.

Naturally, there are two sides to this story. And it would be nice to be able to believe the management contention that most of this is nothing more than a union problem, just some hothead doomsday artists blowing off steam. Maybe these men aren’t overworked. Maybe we should just ignore all those possible mid-air collisions.

And, if we believe management, you and I don’t have a thing to worry about the next time we fly into or out of Philadelphia International. We can just relax, fasten our seat belts and not think about a thing.

Okay. You go first.

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