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The Friendly Skies Become Overcrowded

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next, we're going to listen to air travel as you may never have heard it before.

Unidentified Woman (Flight Attendant): Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome aboard United Airlines Flight 915 with service to San Francisco.

INSKEEP: That's the part you likely have heard, a United Airlines flight attendant at the beginning of Flight 915 this June. The aircraft was set for departure at Washington's Dulles International Airport.

United let NPR listen in to everything the pilots were hearing and saying.

Unidentified Man #1 (Pilot): We have a maintenance difficulty underway and it involves the in-flight video entertainment system, the entire in-flight video entertainment system is inoperative. They've sent for a part to repair that. They told me five minutes ago best-case scenario is 45 minutes to get that repair made.

INSKEEP: United Flight 915 did eventually get that problem fixed. It left the gate about 35 minutes late. Delays of every sort are a large part of air travel today and so are crowded skies, known on the pilot's radio as mutual traffic.

Unidentified Man #2 (Air Traffic Controller): United 915, mutual traffic, 12:00 o'clock, 10 miles east (unintelligible) Airbus, west bound (unintelligible)...

Unidentified Man #1: 915 United's looking.

INSKEEP: In time, flight controllers directed the plane to San Francisco's 28-right runway as another plane landed out its windows on 28-left. The flight arrived about 30 minutes late.

Unidentified Woman: If this is home for you, welcome home. If you're here for a visit, we hope it's wonderful. And if you are continuing on, we do wish you the safest of travel.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Safe air travel today is largely in the hands of air traffic control. The Federal Aviation Administration's main command center coordinates that effort across all airlines, across all airports, and most everything else using U.S. airspace.

Mr. MIKE SAMMARTINO (Federal Aviation Administration): So those are the airplanes that we're tracking. On a normalized day, it's about 7,000 flights in the air at any given time.

MONTAGNE: Gosh, it makes you a little - gives you pause. You know, when you're up on a plane, you seem to think you're the only one.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: Well, that's true. When you look at the U.S., it looks very crowded.

MONTAGNE: Mike Sammartino directs system operations for the FAA. He is taking us on a tour of the command center just outside Washington D.C.

(Soundbite of beeping)

MONTAGNE: Thanks.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: This is the command center itself.

MONTAGNE: We walked into a room. It's as big as a football field, and all around are giant computer screens, about a dozen of them. This room looks like what you would imagine NASA Mission Control would look like. There are several dozen U-shaped stations where specialists sit at computers, pretty quiet, managing the country's airspace.

How does it work? I mean, who do you - the FAA - speak to? And what are you looking at to make decisions? Are you looking at that, that big...

Mr. SAMMARTINO: Well, we are looking at the big screens, big each of the controllers here, for any of our airports in the system, they have a tool set that will define how many arrivals and departures will land or go through that piece of airspace in every given hour. And we can go down here and look at that in a minute.

All right, let's go. If you're ready.

MONTAGNE: Yeah.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: So they're using the example here of Detroit. And this tells us that Detroit Airport, our normal arrival rate is 60 airplanes an hour.

MONTAGNE: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: And we look at the demand two hours from now. There's 53 total airplanes that are going to land at Detroit. So we know we can handle 60. When they have 53 coming, we don't have to take any major initiatives to restrict the flow of traffic into Detroit.

Now, I'm going to change this so you can see an airport.

MONTAGNE: So now you're hitting La Guardia.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: Correct.

MONTAGNE: They're may be a little more of a delay because...

Mr. SAMMARTINO: Right.

MONTAGNE: ...everything is near the maximum or above.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: That is true. We will watch that closer than we will Detroit. And we will collaborate with our field facilities, as well as our customers, to see if we have to take any major initiative.

So what is a major initiative mean? It means we can stop airplanes that are not airborne on the ground. So all these green flights, they're not airborne yet.

MONTAGNE: They're sitting in an airport hoping or aiming to go into La Guardia.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: Right.

MONTAGNE: And you're going to have to hold them on the ground.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: We will have to take an initiative to tactically stop airplanes on the ground. That's our first rule. So we will look and look at the over-demand. And we'll go out and tell those facilities to keep that specific airplane on the ground.

MONTAGNE: And as anyone who has ever flown now knows, that could effect the airplane that you want to meet on the other end.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: Correct. Absolutely correct.

MONTAGNE: And it - could it create a backlog?

Mr. SAMMARTINO: In essence, you actually end up delaying quite a few operations throughout your day.

MONTAGNE: How different is this level of flying that we're looking at - how different is this now than it was 10 years ago?

Mr. SAMMARTINO: Well, there's more demand on the system today than there was 10 years ago. Because of the load factors - and we're not - we don't run the business models of the airlines - the load factors are at historic record numbers. So they're flying - you know, in the past they used to be, if they were - say the airlines were in the 70 percent load factors, that was good. Now they're flying in 90s, and it's not uncommon for an airline to call us and say, we're flying on 100 percent load factor.

MONTAGNE: Yeah.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: Hundred percent.

MONTAGNE: In a sense then are you then blaming the airlines? Is their way of doing business contributing to these incredible delays that in the end, you know, people have to live with?

Mr. SAMMARTINO: So the issue for us, it's not blame, it's providing a service. That's what we are. We're a service provider. So from my perspective, it's very positive because there's quite a bit of air travel.

MONTAGNE: That the planes are full.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: That's very good.

MONTAGNE: And more of them flying.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: More of them flying. The downside is when you have a hiccup in the system the delayed flights come. On a normal day, without weather in the system, we will run 58,000-59,000 flights. We will run that with minimal delay. And minimal delay to me is somewhere - 700 delays.

MONTAGNE: Who decides when a flight is cancelled?

Mr. SAMMARTINO: We, the FAA, do not cancel flights. It's up to the - whoever is flying that flight to cancel that flight.

MONTAGNE: So don't blame the FAA when a flight is cancelled.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: Yeah, we just do not control that. That's up to the airline that works through that.

MONTAGNE: So looking towards the future, is delay and cancellation part of the equation of flying? That is, you don't go to the airport without expecting something like this.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: I don't believe there will ever be a day when delays will not be present.

MONTAGNE: Mike Sammartino, thank you for talking to me.

Mr. SAMMARTINO: Well, we appreciate you visiting now the air traffic control system (unintelligible) thanks.

MONTAGNE: Mike Sammartino directs system operations for the FAA. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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