Unlike our very own Kent Wien, I never trained to be a pilot, but even without those years of training, I can’t imagine it is very comforting to get close to your destination airport and find an unstaffed air traffic control tower.
This is exactly what happened when a jet carrying 156 passengers arrived in the airspace of Zamboanga airport in the Philippines, after a flight from the nation’s capital.
Instead of hearing the familiar commands from the tower telling them they were cleared to land, the Philippine Airlines flight crew heard nothing. It took 30 minutes of circling around the airport for someone to finally make their way to the tower and permit the jet to land.
Of the 5 controllers who were supposed to be on duty that morning, 2 were missing, 2 were late and one was on an approved day off, but their approval note did not make it to the airport administrator. Talk about a total breakdown of communications.
The excuse the remaining 4 controllers presented was that public transport was hard to find the day after Christmas, but officials say the controllers may still have been a little too much in “party mode”. I’m sure that is comforting to hear if you were in the air around Zamboanga that morning.
The newspaper article claims the controllers were fired, but Philippine officials merely say the 5 are currently suspended pending an investigation.
(Via: Sydney Morning Herald)
Earlier this year, the National Transportation Safety Bureau scolded the FAA for not doing more to decrease the chances of runway collisions. According to the NTSB, runway accidents are the greatest danger facing air travelers. Near misses are almost commonplace. Just last week in Pennsylvania, a United Express jet and a 4-seat Cessna barely missed each other because of an error by an air traffic controller trainee.
This week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) chimed in on the subject of runway dangers, reporting that though the number of flights dropped over the past year, the number of runway incidents (actual accidents or near misses) was slightly higher during the first three quarters of 2008 than it was in 2007. Nonetheless, a top GAO aviation expert told a House committee that it appeared that the FAA was increasingly intent on making runways safer.
With all the chatter about airport security measures, security checkpoints and the use of cell phones on planes, the chaotic runways of airports almost go unnoticed. Though, if you crunched the numbers, the chances of getting hit by another plane while taxiing down a runway are much, much higher than the chances of a plane being hijacked.
It’s difficult for me to maintain perspective when my flights are delayed. No matter what the reason — weather, technical problems, etc — I get frustrated, and have to resist the temptation to blame the airline, their staff, or anyone else who seems like they might be in some way connected to the problem.
But of all the reasons to wait around for a flight to land or take off, an air traffic controller’s bathroom break is the last thing I’d expect to be causing the disruption.
However, that’s exactly what happened last week at Manchester-Boston Regional — New Hampshire’s largest airport. The controller left the tower for 12 minutes, which left two Southwest Airlines flights circling above the airport for an extra 18 minutes, and kept a medical flight delivering lungs to New Jersey on the ground 10 minutes longer than scheduled. The absence was in the logbook as a “bathroom break.”
It should be noted, the controller waited until traffic was very light, and followed procedure by notifying other controllers at nearby facility that he’d be out for moment.
I guess when you gotta go, you gotta go.