Friday, September 01, 2006

Gridlock Over America


The tragic Comair flight in Lexington this week revealed weaknesses in our air traffic control system here in the US. Our nations skies and airports are overwhelmed, under-staffed, and using outdated computers that you wouldn't use to check your own e-mail. In addition to just causing inconvenient delays, the present system can lead to fatal accidents as was unfortunately seen. Clearly something needs to be done before things get worse.

It has been found out that there was only one air traffic controller on duty Sunday, when NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) regulations state there are to be two controllers on duty at all times. After he cleared the plane for take off he turned to administrative duties, and did not see the airplane on the wrong runway which was too short to build up the necessary speed. It was further found out that the controller had only two hours of sleep before starting his shift. Now, he had nine hours in between his current shift and his previous shift. NTSB regulations state that controllers must have eight hours off in between shifts. Now eight hours does not seem like enough time. Theoretically, to get a full nights rest you need about eight hours, which would not leave time for commuting, eating, or doing anything else, which is unreasonable. So, if we expect controllers to get enough sleep perhaps we should increase the amount of time between shifts. It was not shown though that the lack of sleep caused the accident. Nor was shown that having another person on duty would have caught this.

What we really need to do is update our aviation navigation and tracking equipment. We now have cars that do have built in GPS systems. Surely we could put GPS units and computers in planes. Then they could communicate with the air tower's computers and make sure that it is on the right runway that it was cleared to use. We need radars and computers that can better track the thousands of flights in the air and on the ground at any one time and warn of impending accidents.

Another step that we need to take to reduce congestion in the skies and at airports is to build high speed rails and trains. This would be a better use of funds than expanding and building new airports. It would reduce the amount of traffic or at least slow the growth of the traffic down. There is no reason why high speed rail couldn't replace short to medium haul flights. When you factor in check in time, security, delays, baggage claim, etc., the amount of time to take a train could be the same or even less. Furthermore, although you still need security for trains, you don't have to worry about a train being hijacked and crashed into a building. Depending on the technology used, trains we have less delays due to bad weather, rain, snow, fog, etc. It would also be cheaper to take a train than to fly, as they are more energy efficient, and so I think the American consumer would be willing to travel by rail. And other flights would benefit from less planes in the sky, which would lead to better safety and less delays.

Before things get worse, we need to look at how we handle personnel, update our technology that tracks planes, and reduce air traffic through high speed rail. This will make us safer and happier when traveling, either by flying or by rail.

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