We have an air-traffic control system because no individual pilot can be expected to see the whole picture–air traffic in the area, the flow of ground traffic at an airport. The Tower, as it’s called, serves as the central, coordinating eyes and ears of the flying world.
But, when only one controller is on duty at a major airport, and that person is compromised in some way, look out. Near disaster looms.
The pilot of a Chicago-bound jetliner struggled to communicate with an incoherent air traffic controller before takeoff last Wednesday in Las Vegas and now the FAA tower employee is out of her job, but what led up to the bizarre and potentially disastrous few minutes is still a mystery.
Such nerve-wracking scenes are rare–but not unheard of. And those who supervise the system do work quickly to fix the problem, but tend to leave us in the dark about exactly what it was. In Chicago, not that long ago, aircraft needed to communicate with The Tower…and no one was home. Hard as that is to believe.
In that case, a Southwest Airlines flight from Houston to Chicago had to be diverted when the cockpit crew couldn’t even reach anyone in Midway’s tower. It was unclear whether the Midway mishap was the result of an ill or sleeping controller, a technical glitch or staff shortage-and FAA officials on Monday told the I-Team to file a Freedom of Information request for conclusions or action, if any, in that case.
So, where does that leave us? One of the most stressful, and critical jobs on the planet produces melt-downs in The Tower, less often than you might think, but once is too often for the stakes involved.
As psychologists we want to know just how, and how often, controllers go off the grid of necessary competence. And we want to know why the public, the flying public and the journalists of the world, as kept in the dark as much as possible about what’s happening and why. Those are two critical mysteries, right there.