One way to civilize the unfriendly skies

On Bastille Day, July 14, thousands of us, including two prominent senators and a former attorney general of Massachusetts, involuntarily occupied Washington's Reagan Airport. It was a summer's hot Friday. All of us were trying to fly back to Boston for the weekend. But the weather and air traffic control's arcane methods were in the way.

The lines to the shuttle counter stretched the entire 200-yard length of the gate area. Longer lines snaked from security machines into the terminal. Tempers were frayed. Passengers screamed at gate agents and each other. No one could give reassurances or provide more than minimal information - information that would have been comfort for the weary or the worried.

It was an air-rage-provoking day, all because of what seemed - minus solid, official information - to be arbitrary determinations in a radar center hundreds of miles from the airport.

There must be a better method to handle incipient air passenger anger, confusion, and simple lack of information. The Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control could itself inform flyers directly about the problems in the sky. That way, the airlines wouldn't be compelled to invent or imagine reasons.

It took me 25 hours to get airborne for the one-hour flight. My 1:30 p.m. shuttle rolled off the gate an hour late on Friday. But it was summoned back to the gate to deboard - common in this record-breaking season of airline delays, but still vexing when explanations are lacking. That flight and others until 6:30 p.m. were cancelled in a rolling cascade of disappointment.

Air traffic control - ATC, as the pilots call it - was calling the shots. The route from Washington to Boston was sunny and clear. But pilots and gate personnel told passengers there was bad weather somewhere on the route. A look at the CNN weather map in the terminal and discussions with several off-duty pilots, suggested that the real weather problem was in the Ohio Valley. That meant an overload of planes in the Eastern corridor and overtaxed air traffic control. We were being protected - or inconvenienced - by the ATC for the southern Eastern Coast, in Jacksonville, Fla. The problem in this case was not with the airlines. The pilots wearily explained to their passengers that they had to radio air traffic headquarters every half hour to obtain a slot for takeoff. Information from ATC itself, even via pilots, was sparse and uninformative - no explanations, only guesses by the pilots.

When hundreds of us scrambled onto the 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. shuttles at about 8 p.m. on Friday, there was some hope. ATC at first gave both planes take-off slots at 11 p.m. or later, forgetting that a noise curfew shuts Reagan Airport at 10 p.m. When the airline finally negotiated earlier takeoff slots, we confidently taxied to the runway. It was 9 p.m. when both aircraft reached the takeoff end of the runway. Then we sat again, waiting for renewed clearance, until 10 p.m. when the pilots took us back to the gate and we all disembarked, sought solace on the terminal floor, or found hotels and friends, and jockeyed for confirmed seats on next-day flights. I was fortunate, taking off about noon on Saturday for an uneventful flight to Boston.

There is a better way to deal with passenger frustration and potential air passenger rage. The long term, toughest fixes to overcrowded air corridors will come when ATC and control tower computer systems are finally modernized after decades of failed attempts. That will enable overtaxed air controllers to do their critical jobs with greater assurance of safety margins.

In the short term, greater transparency can help. It would certainly give passengers confidence, as well as real information. If each ATC center designated a spokesman, it would not take more than modest technological marvels for such an authoritative voice to broadcast directly into air terminals and aircraft cabins. Instead of pilots or harried gate personnel being compelled imperfectly and skeptically to translate ATC views and thoughts to annoyed passengers, let ATC do it directly. That way, potential air-passenger rage could be reduced while all of us wait for the FAA to bring the guidance of air traffic into the modern age.

Robert I. Rotberg is director of Harvard University's Kennedy School program on intrastate conflict and president of the World Peace Foundation.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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