FAA traffic control shines at critical time

FAA traffic control shines at critical time

In his remarks last Tuesday evening, President Bush promised a stunned nation that the federal government would be open for business the following day.

I can tell you that for a few tense hours on Tuesday, in the moments following the World Trade Center attacks, one arm of the federal government performed magnificently in an unprecedented situation.

I was traveling on US Airways Flight 175 from Charlotte, N.C., bound for Phoenix and the Association for Federal Enterprise Integration conference. The flight had departed late, about 8:45 a.m.

It was a brilliantly clear day, perfect for flying. The pilot's voice was strangely halting when he started his announcement not long after takeoff.

'C'mon man, get it out!' I said, commenting to the passenger next to me.

Finally he told us, somewhat vaguely, that there had been an action involving aviation and that we were ordered to land at the nearest airport that could take a big Airbus. In our case, the nearest airport was in Memphis.

A few minutes later he said that the president had ordered all airspace cleared and that a plane had hit the New York landmark. It didn't add up, but the passengers were calm, if puzzled.

It was then that I thought of the Federal Aviation Administration. Good Lord, can they safely guide in every flight in the air? An estimated 5,000 planes are airborne at any given moment. Let me tell you, knowing only that there is some sort of national emergency going on while you are at 35,000 feet in an airliner is sobering.

What if the airport control towers lose their power? What if the computers fail? What if the controllers just get overwhelmed?

Of course, none of that happened and, after about 45 minutes of circling Memphis, we landed smoothly. We had to use a staircase to get out of the plane because all the gates were occupied. Inside, the terminal was crowded but surprisingly calm. None of that Christmas snowstorm pandemonium.

Nowhere in the ensuing saturation TV coverage of the terrorist events did I hear any mention of the job the FAA did in safely landing all of U.S. aviation, or just how extraordinarily difficult that seemingly simple act was. But after reading and editing stories about FAA systems for the past 10 years, I appreciated it in a very real way.

The agency has started to make progress in replacing its aging systems. It has a long way to go. And certainly the air system was engulfed in uncertainty in the hours and days immediately following the hijackings.

But let it be known that in a life-and-death situation that might have been even more catastrophic, the controllers and the systems people and management supporting them did their jobs and brought tens of thousands of Americans safely back to Earth.

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