Stuck Inside of Reagan National With The Outdated Air Traffic Control System Blues Again


Live (well, semi-comatose) from Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C.: The weekend dump of snow has put the Capital City in a tizzy, with proactive school closings, taxicab emergencies (meaning drivers collect double the fare), Metro bus and train interruptions, and more. The snafu is nowhere bigger than at the area's airports, where flights were cancelled en masse yesterday and today.

A month ago, released a video about a lagging part of U.S. aviation: The nation's antiquated air traffic control system, which really hasn't changed much in the past half-century or more. We titled that piece "Your Flight Has Been Delayed…And It's Washington's Fault." Well, this time around, weather certainly has the starring role, but put on your Snuggie, pull up your computer screen, throw another log on the fire, toss another slug of rum into your hot chocolate, and watch the video again. However bad the weather was for East Coast jet-setters this weekend, a legacy air-traffic-control system ain't helping anything.

If nothing else, it may take your mind off the phoney-baloney climate deal reached in Copenhagen, the phoney-baloney health care reform bill trickling through the Senate, and the fact that 2010 is shaping up to be just as awful as this past year was.

Go to or our YouTube channel for more videos. A veritable Yule log of crackling libertarian fire.


NEXT: Reason Writers Around Town: Nick Gillespie in Washington Post on Sarbanes-Oxley & "The Worst Ideas of The Decade"

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  1. Any chance the snow will preclude a vote on healthcare?

  2. Prevent, I mean.

  3. grandpa died last week
    and now he’s buried in the tarmac

  4. Bored? Go outside and start a snowball figh- uh, maybe not.

  5. This morning I was awoken by my alarm clock powered by electricity generated by the public power monopoly regulated by the US Department of Energy.
    I then took a shower in the clean water provided by the municipal water utility.
    After that, I turned on the TV to one of the FCC regulated channels to see what the National Weather Service of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration determined the weather was going to be like using satellites designed, built, and launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. I watched this while eating my breakfast of US Department of Agriculture inspected food and taking the drugs which have been determined as safe by the Food and Drug Administration.
    At the appropriate time as regulated by the US Congress and kept accurate by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the US Naval Observatory, I get into my National Highway Traffic Safety Administration approved automobile and set out to work on the roads built by the local, state, and federal Departments of Transportation, possibly stopping to purchase additional fuel of a quality level determined by the Environmental Protection Agency, using legal tender issued by the Federal Reserve Bank. On the way out the door I deposit any mail I have to be sent out via the US Postal Service and drop the kids off at the public school.
    Then, after spending another day not being maimed or killed at work thanks to the workplace regulations imposed by the Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, I drive back to my house which has not burned down in my absence because of the state and local building codes and the fire marshal’s inspection, and which has not been plundered of all its valuables thanks to the local police department.
    I then log onto the Internet which was developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration and post on reason, freerepublic and fox news forums about how SOCIALISM in medicine is BAD because the government can’t do anything right.

    1. You do realize, that if given over to the private sector, all of the “wonderful” things you just mentioned would be run better, more efficiently, and for less money then what you currently pay in taxes right? And that the bulk of HISTORY points out that what I’m saying is correct?

      Didn’t think so.

      1. Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you, if you’re libertarian at heart.

        1. Yeah, if one dreams of a world where the government runs everything – though that’s not the kind of happy-ending fairy tale kids usually hear…

    2. Sorry, the Federal Gov. didn’t build anything (Shuttle, highways, cars, weapons, medicines, etc.) except mountains of paper and regs that keep lawyers busy and add to our costs. Also, the FED is really a private bank and UPS and FEDEX could probably do the mail cheaper.

    3. Gosh, Sanchez, using that logic we should disallow any private-sector ownership of business, and let The Perfect Government run everything.

    4. You believe in the tooth fairy as well I imagine.

      1. I’d say he does, after that post about how wonderful government is…

  6. Please God, make then monitor this comments page!

    1. Weird.

      God made me monitor this comments page.

  7. There are many things wrong with the FAA and the air traffic control system.

    However, airline policy itself has a huge contribution to the impact of bad weather.

    The basic airline schedule assumes daylight, clear weather operations. The airlines book their schedules to minimize the number of multimillion dollar assets sitting idle — why wouldn’t they?

    A disruption anywhere in the network causes cascading impacts throughout the each airline’s networks. With a major disruption like the current weather in DC, it takes days for the airline to reallocate assets and get the network back up to normal operations.

    The US government has no part in this fiasco.

  8. I finally took the time to watch the whole video. What a crock of shit. I say this as a guy actively working in private industry to solve many of the problems discussed obliquely in the video.

    Yeah, Murtha’s a pile of shit. But his earmarks are trivial compared to the cost of the work that really needs to be done.

    First, we need to continue to spend hundreds of billions of dollars putting up navigation satellites, before the ones that are up there stop working. Europe tried to privatize Galileo and failed spectacularly. I don’t see any consortium of private companies being able to put up navigation satellites with any kind of positive business case. And let’s not forget that satellite navigation systems also represent a huge exposure to electronic warfare as well.

    Second, everyone up in the air needs to broadcast to the world where they are and where they are going. Of course, there are many problems with that including forcing all aircraft to carry expensive equipment that no one really wants to buy and making sure that bad guys can’t intercept the data and use it to target aircraft. Alternatively, we can keep putting up more of those 50’s technology radar surveillance systems.

    And ATC needs to change, not just get sold off to a private company. The future is real-time negotiation directly between aircraft. Negotiating flight plans with a central authority is just a huge bottleneck that is only going to get worse as time goes on.

    Of course, none of these actually solve the problem of increasing capacity at the busiest airports which need more runways which means leveling vast tracts of land in urban environments — but hey, there are no political challenges in that are there.

    1. “Yeah, Murtha’s a pile of shit. But his earmarks are trivial compared to the cost of the work that really needs to be done.”

      That’s not the main reason for Murtha being a pile of shit, but it’s part of the mindset most politicians have – spend the hell out of money on things we don’t need.

      Among other offenses.

  9. It’s a travesty that they named an airport after that fucking dimwit.

    1. Wow, Morris… I’m amazed.

      1. Oops, I thought you meant Murtha.

        1. You mean you like Reagan, that great fiscal conservative who turned the United States from the world’s largest creditor to the world’s largest debtor?

          Go back to, you Republican scum.

          1. Fat lot you know. I’ve voted for two Republicans in the last twenty years – one on the local level, and for Ron Paul last year in the primary.

            Peddle your big-government horseshit to someone else, Sanchez.

          2. Yes, this is Reason, a website for people who believe the government is the solution to all problems!

  10. Well, this time around, weather certainly has the starring role, but put on your Snuggie,

    You know what the best use of a Snuggie is? Hanging or smothering the person that buys them.

  11. First of all, Bob Poole is an idiot. He’s been ranting against the ATC system for years and on every issue controllers have proven him wrong. I’m not sure what is his agenda and why he hates controllers, but as a retired controller I can asure you he knows nothing about how ATC works.

    He admonishes the U.S. system, by far the busiest in the world, for still using plastic flight strips, yet proudly displays the Canadians using what, electronic flight strips which look and are used exactly like the plastic ones. Wow! What a leap! I’ve talked with Canadian controllers. They hate their system and it’s broke. They had to raise fees so high, the airlines couldn’t afford them. And the plastic flight strips used by U.S. controllers? Hospitals have discovered how efficient the method is for passing information to the next person and are looking into using a similar system to reduce medical errors.

    Sfb is the only one in here who seems to grasp some of the realities of our National Airspace System, or NAS. There is no such thing as an ATC delay. I’m not saying that out of distorted pride, it’s a fact. The airlines know how many planes can physically operate on a runway in an hour, yet schedule 125% or more of that capacity. And that’s under ideal conditions. Toss in a thunderstorm and it all goes to hell. I’ve stood for an hour reading off wind gusts and micro-burst alerts to a line of planes and not a one of them will depart in those conditions. And they shouldn’t. Aviation will always be subject to effects of weather and no amount of technology will allow a tin can full of passengers to fly through a thunderstorm. Controllers hate to waste even a spec of airspace and I’ve seen controllers work airplanes in so tight that the computerized conflict alert sounded like a slot machine, all legal and all safe.

    People like Murtha are a disgrace, but the problem isn’t a symptom of our ATC system but rather of our Congress. This is just one small part of the budget. Imagine how messed up the rest is? The answer is not in privitizing ATC, but in reforming the congressional budget process.

    I was working on 9-11 and worked with a sense of awe and pride as we safely brought down 1000s of aircraft in an incredibly short time. It had never been done, never been rehearsed, but we all knew we could trust the person next to us to make it happen without a single mishap. Part of that was because we were all FAA controllers* and knew the training that each of us had recieved. Coordination from top to bottom was seemless and we all knew our jobs. I cannot envision a consortium of private companies pulling this off. Lockheed managers would have been fighting with Boeing managers over how many aircraft each one would take and who was going to “pay” for the overtime. I’m a free enterprise guy, but some things are inherently governmental. Air Traffic Control is one of those things.

    *There are some non-federal control towers which handle a small percentage of total # of aircraft. For their part, they performed admirably on 9-11.

    1. Well said LS.

      Also, there is an attempt to open more slots, at least in the NYC metro area, which will increse the amount of delays during bad weather.

    2. The answer is not in privitizing ATC, but in reforming the congressional budget process.

      Of course the libertarian solution is to fix the congressional budget process by taking it away from congress through privatization.

      1. Not true kinnath, Look at how Halliburton and Xe services are funded, both private companies funded by Congress.

        A E-1 to E-3 in the military cost a hell of a lot less than sending someone from one of those private companies to do the same job.

      2. I’m not commenting so much on the libertarian position of funding as much as the reality of funding private companies.

  12. You can’t privatize the weather. It wouldn’t matter if we had government or private controllers. Weather delays will happen and are not the government’s fault.

    1. We’re working on it.

    2. It doesn’t matter, we’re doomed to die in ten years from global flooding.

      But we still need to stop burning fossil fuels – well, *I* can still burn them, but the rest of you peasants are shit out of luck if I have my way.

  13. I get a kick out of how everyone wants the FAA to update equipment and become a private company. Well I can tell you that if you think it is bad now wait for you wish to come true. Remember 9/11, with this new GPS base radar, if an airplane loses or turns off it’s transmitter, it become invisible to the FAA, because we will not have a RADAR swipe to give a return of the airplane. Oh and you think the FAA can run airplanes closer together, only right up until the time they need to land. So without more or larger airports, it still the same old bag. Let me give you an example, you drive to work and run into rush hour traffic, because everyone else is trying to get to work at the same time, do you thing that a GPS car system would take care of the problem, NO. People, you can only put so much mass in one place at a time.

    And you want the air traffic control system to be private? Talk to some private pilots and ask them what they think of todays flight service stations that are now private compared to when they where run by the FAA. More pilots today will call a center to get a clearance off the ground, because during bad weather flight service can not handle the load. That private company is laying off more people, because there profits are not high enough, so the service will get worst. Flight service has proven that some things should be run by the government and not some company that looks to the bottom line for answers.

    As a controller for the last 20+ years, I have seen the FAA in the good and the bad and can tell you first hand, you want this to be a slow process. Making sure something is working 100% correctly before it is used on live traffic is a good thing. Don’t worry, the new system is coming, and it will end up working, now that controllers can have some input it.

    We have the best system in the world, that how it was yesterday, today and will be tomorrow.

    Be careful what you wish for!

  14. Hilarious! Blowhards without any ATC or aviation experience extolling the virtues of a system the really know nothing about.

    You know where the problem is? The lack of runways and the chronic overscheduling of flights by the airline companies. If an airport can accept or depart 130 airplanes an hour, but 200 are scheduled guess what happens? Delays, and that is if the weather is perfect, there are no emergencies etc. Just how does NexGen solve this problem? Further, what happens when a satellite dependent ATC system is disrupted for days or weeks for solar flares? What happens when there is no ground based radar to track a plane with an electrical failure, or the system is shut down during a hijack?
    NavCanada is a joke, they are bleeding money and their entire ATC system handles less operations than Chicago Center does!
    You clowns offer these forums for skeptics to post their thoughts, yet you have never addressed any of them, why is that?

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