Air Traffic Controllers May Handle Three Jobs at Once

By Peter Mandel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 12, 2009

It feels like a jet cockpit up here: wraparound windows, the roar and hum of engines, panels full of yellow flickering lights. Radar dots and dashes are fanning out across a giant screen when suddenly there's a radio alert -- it squawks and howls.

This is the air traffic control tower at Massachusetts's New Bedford Regional Airport, a steel-and-glass penthouse attached to the terminal building. Hearing the alert, the controller grabs a headset trailing its cobra of a cord. The twirled-up plastic whisks his work space clear, spilling a cup of pencils, a Murphy's Law Page-a-Day calendar and stacks of pamphlets and charts.

"Come in, tower!" crackles the voice. "Tower, can you read me?" Things sound grim. "This is Maintenance. Light bulbs, two of them, are out on Runway 12."

The controller shakes his head -- it's less than a crisis -- and goes back to his screen. The tower, with its shifts of Federal Aviation Administration-certified air traffic controllers, keeps tabs on miles of tarmac and everything that lands and takes off at one of New England's busiest airports. Not to mention the occasional blown bulb.

New Bedford isn't as big as Boston's Logan, but it's a summer hub for travelers to Cape Cod and has a profile similar to about three-quarters of the nation's airports, serving mostly turbo-prop commuter routes and privately owned light aircraft.

More important for me, it's the only airport tower I've checked with that will let me in to see what goes on. Before I climb the stairs I have to be buzzed through a door with an enormous red-and-white sign. "WARNING," it says. "Danger May Result From Service Interruption. Any Person Who Interferes With Air Traffic Control . . . Will Be Prosecuted Under Federal Law."

I'm asked for a photo ID and made to sign a datebook. I'm shown to a swivel chair and, although it squeaks when I sit, I resolve to do my best to stay quiet and blend in. Flying, to me, is all about its fitted parts. Not just plane parts such as wings and wheels. But the parts of an interconnected whole -- including pilot training, airport security, radar, routings -- that let us change continents in mere hours.

Like most passengers, I fly based on trust. But I am curious. Do air traffic controllers race around in constant panic? Do they nod off at their screens? How do they keep track of so many moving objects? And, um, how many double espressos do these guys need to do the job?

"I'm like the cashier taking orders at McDonald's," controller Scott Duncan says while untangling his cord. "Only there it's more high-tech. They've got wireless headsets."

Duncan is only kidding. Sort of. He's dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans (I'd been expecting some type of uniform), and his ID tag hangs from a blue-and-orange Lufthansa neck strap. "Isn't that a conflict of interest?" I ask. He just shrugs.

Other surprises: The computers' screen savers are aglow, not with jet trails at sunset but with some snowy scene: horses pulling old-fashioned sleighs. There aren't any half-eaten doughnuts or bags of Cheetos, as I'd envisioned. And strangest of all, the coffee maker is off and empty. None of this, to me, bodes well.

Giving me a tour of the tower, Duncan points out the monitors that controllers pore over at the three main tower positions:

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