After 188

As we move past the particulars of the two pilots who “overshot” Minneapolis in their Northwest Airlines Airbus last week, some systemic problems (no, not the “crew rest” problem) are coming to light:

USA Today reports that the communication system used by the FAA and airlines is relatively antiquated:

Even though the radio may not be to blame for the Northwest Airlines mishap, the difficulty that controllers and the airline had in reaching the cockpit underscores the weaknesses of the equipment.

“I’ve been waiting for 15 years for the day when we’re no longer dependent on voice communications,” said Patrick Veillette, a corporate pilot and aviation safety researcher. “It can’t come soon enough.”

When a jet flies across the country, its pilots have to change radio frequencies dozens of times. With each change, controllers read a new frequency to pilots, who manually change their radios. According to controllers and pilots, mistakes occur frequently, though most are minor and short-lived.

There have been a few changes in the technology of communication, but for the most part the way air traffic control works in the United States is the same way it worked when we called flight attendants stewardesses and we were encouraged to fly a particular airlines because they were sexy.

The FAA has been considering a technical overhaul of the skies. But it’s plan — dubbed NextGen — has been beset by budgetary, technological, and bureaucratic problems.

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