Flight 1793, Where Are You?

TO WIT

July 03, 1994|By DAVE BARRY

As a frequent flier, I am alarmed about the air traffic control situation.

As you probably know, air traffic control is the system set up by the federal government to keep airplanes from crashing any more than is absolutely necessary. This is accomplished via radar. Here's how it works: A thing at the airport sends out radar beams that travel through the atmosphere until they strike an airplane, causing it to shake violently during the meal service. The radar beams then bounce off the plane and travel back the other way until they are detected by the supersensitive ear of the bat, which is thus able to locate the mosquito, eat it, and throw up.

No, wait, that is sonar. The radar beams travel back to the airport, where they collapse, exhausted, but not before forming little blobs of light on a TV screen in the control tower. By analyzing these blobs, air traffic controllers can tell exactly where the various airplanes are on the map, and advise the pilots accordingly.

Air traffic control: Flight 1793, your current position is directly over the "b" in Nebraska. Continue on your current heading until you see the state capital, Lincoln, which will be indicated by a big star.

Pilot: This is Flight 1793, and we are still on the ground in Chicago.

Air traffic control: Whoops. Our mistake. Apparently we are picking up a bat.

Bat: Roger.

Using radar, air traffic controllers are able to keep many planes flying around airports, without hitting each other, until every single passenger on board has missed his or her connecting flight. This system has served our nation well, but it's getting old. It has been in use, without major modernization, since the original flight by the Wright brothers (who had to wait three hours for takeoff clearance because air traffic control was convinced that there were other aircraft in the area).

I'm not saying that commercial air travel is dangerous. Statistics gathered by the U.S. Transportation Department show that you are far safer in an airplane that is flying 35,000 feet above the Earth's surface than you are in an airplane that has crashed into the ocean and is sinking like a cement truck. But there is reason to be concerned about the air traffic control system, which is why we should be glad that Vice President Al Gore is getting involved.

Al has been a very busy executive-branch beaver lately, because President Clinton, due to various unforeseen world crises, has had to occupy himself pretty much full-time with hiring personal attorneys. Thus it has been left up to Al to protect the environment, reinvent government, appear on Letterman, etc.

So Al held a press conference with Secretary of Transportation Federico F. Pena, wherein they announced that the air traffic control system is antiquated. To demonstrate this point -- and here I am quoting from the New York Times -- "Mr. Pena handed Mr. Gore a vacuum tube used in an air traffic control computer at National Airport and said it was a symbol of the inefficiency that characterized the air traffic control system."

I am troubled by that image. I mean, picture the scene in the National Airport control tower while the vice president's press conference was going on.

First air traffic controller: OK, Flight 1793, due to congestion in the airport area, we're going to have your plane fly around until it spells out "Happy birthday Myron A. Horsewhacker Jr." So I want you to fly straight until . . . Hey! My screen went blank!

Second air traffic controller: Look! Some idiot has removed a vacuum tube from our antiquated computer!

First air traffic controller: Wait a minute! That's Secretary of Transportation Federico F. Pena! Sir, that's our vacuum tube!

Pena: Sorry men, but the vice president needs this as a symbol of the inefficiency that characterizes the air traffic control system.

Flight 1793: Hey, how big are these letters going to be? Because it looks like we're about to fly right into this . . . (silence).

I'm confident that, in time, the federal government will make the air traffic control system every bit as modern and efficient as the postal service. But for now, we members of the public should avoid commercial air travel, at least until certain basic steps have been taken to ensure our safety. And I think we can all agree on step No. 1: Al should give back the tube.

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