Author John Nance, who is also ABCNEWS' aviation analyst, is releasing a new aviation thriller about the passengers of Meridian Flight 6. As their flight is delayed for hours, the passengers are pushed to the edge — and their flight only gets worse. Read chapter one of Nance's latest novel, Turbulence.
FAA AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL TOWER CHICAGO O'HARE AIRPORT, ILLINOIS 11:30 A.M. CDT
"This is nuts!"
Shift Supervisor Jake Kostowitz shook his head in pure exasperation as he muttered vague epithets to himself. The day was going to hell already.
Again he felt the deep craving for a cigarette, the fallout of quitting after twenty years. The FAA's no-smoking policy inside control towers was unshakable, and he still felt a pang of resentment every time the urge became too strong to bat down without a surrogate stick of gum.
He hated gum. But he dug into his right pants pocket anyway now to find some.
All around him-spread out for three hundred sixty degrees and some two hundred feet below the new, glassed-in, air-conditioned O'Hare FAA control tower-the gridlock of overheated, delayed airliners inched forward along crowded taxiways past jammed intersections, baked by the relentless glare of the summer sun.
What was that figure he'd heard? Jake mused. Was it fifty, or sixty flights that were scheduled to depart O'Hare at precisely the same time every day? Whatever the figure, at least the system was fully recovered from the nationwide passenger panic following the loss of the World Trade Center. Jake shook his head slightly, a gesture no one else noticed. Never did he ever want to see his airport looking like a ghost town again, but the endless flow of airliners was now back to ridiculous, and the airlines refused to change it.
The aroma of hot cinnamon reached his nose, and Jake turned toward the stairwell to see one of his off-duty controllers munching on a huge roll and grinning. Jake shook his head in mock disapproval. The controller was at least eighty pounds overweight and a walking heart attack. He climbed the last few steps licking his fingers and stood beside Jake, surveying the intense action in the tower cab.
"Well, you think they'll do it, boss?"
Jake turned to glance at him, trying to read his meaning. "Sorry?"
"That's a good word for them. Sorry. I'm talking about America's most dysfunctional airline. Dear old Meridian Air, or as a pilot friend of mine who works there calls 'em: 'Comedian Air, where service is a joke.'"
Jake shook his head. "I sure hope they don't walk. They've got twenty-six percent of this market now. That's a lot of delayed passengers."
"How would they know the difference?" The overweight controller laughed. "Besides, that would also mean twenty-six percent fewer flights for us to sort out."
Jake chuckled and shook his head. "Yeah, right. As if United and American wouldn't pick up the slack. We'd be just as stressed." Jake pointed to the half-eaten sweet roll. "Any more of those in the break room?"
"Yeah. I bought a box. Have at 'em," the man said, watching Jake slip past him down the stairway.
A TV was droning away in the corner of the break room as Jake swung through the door and headed for the box of Cinnabons, the mention of air traffic control catching his attention.
The set had been tuned to C-Span, and a congressional hearing was in progress. Jake recalled reading something about it the day before. Some congressman had seized on the latest air rage incidents to justify a hearing.
Another useless exercise in political grandstanding, Jake thought, his curiosity piqued by the sight of an Air Force officer sitting alone at the witness table in a hearing about the civilian airline industry. The officer wore the silver eagle emblem of a colonel.
"Mr. Chairman," the senior officer was saying, "every day we have hundreds, if not thousands, of enraged passengers flying this airline system and just barely containing their fury. While excess liquor consumption often makes things worse, the underlying causes are a combination of massive overcrowding and poor passenger treatment, not enhanced security procedures."
A gallery of still photographers was sitting on the floor in front of the witness table, and the click-whirr of their constant shooting formed a strange audible backdrop to the televised image.
"So how do we fix it, Colonel? " the chairman was asking. "Is your task force ready with recommendations?"
Jake absently picked out an outrageously caloric Cinnabon and began munching it as he watched. There was a small sign on the witness table, and it identified the officer as U.S. Air Force Colonel David Byrd of the FAA.
Ah! An Air Force liaison officer, Jake thought. He had fond memories of working with a Navy liaison captain assigned to air traffic control several years back.
"No, sir," Colonel Byrd was saying. "We're not ready to issue the final report as yet, but I can tell you this from my own research: Tougher criminal laws won't do it, because people don't plan to get angry and out of control. In other words, we can't adequately change human nature by criminalizing it, and these incidents reflect the predictable responses of humans under great stress. You pack overheated people into overcrowded airports and airplanes and treat them like dirt, lie to them, manipulate them, and price-gouge them, and the numbers of rage incidents are, by definition, going to increase. Mr. Chairman, this is a ticking bomb."
The committee chairman raised his gavel to call for a recess and the next witness and Jake headed toward the stairway to climb back to the tower cab, the muffled roar from a departing 727 catching his attention as he stepped back on the top step. He tracked the departing jetliner for a few seconds, wondering how long that particular crew had had to wait at the end of the runway.
It was, indeed, a ticking bomb, Jake thought, because the delays and the crowding were worsening all the time, and it was already a typical day: there would be no on-time takeoffs the rest of the afternoon, yet the airlines would keep on shoving their jam-packed airplanes back from the gates to join the hour-long taxi delays while recording each push-back as an "on-time" departure. Only when the air traffic control system ordered them to stay at the gate would they do so, and even then, too often the airplanes were shoved out of the gate to make room for an inbound flight. The "penalty box"-as the ramp designated for waiting airliners was called-was usually full these days, and the airlines usually knew precisely which flights would be late. The passengers, of course, weren't supposed to know.
What a scam! And we get blamed. It's always the FAA's fault.
The same thing happened every day with depressing predictability, and today the rapid approach of a line of heavy thunderstorms now beating up Springfield, Illinois, to the west was poised to make the daily air traffic snarl even worse. When the storm finally moved over O'Hare, everything would come to a halt and stay that way until it passed.
Jake looked to the west, catching the glint of lightning a hundred miles out. Hanging in the western sky between the black thunderstorms and O'Hare was a seemingly endless procession of expensive aluminum moving steadily toward the airport with landing lights sparkling against the dark clouds beyond. Their pilots, Jake knew, were struggling to comply with the precise airspeeds ordered by the harried men and women of Chicago Approach Control, located several floors below the quiet tower cab in a windowless room. Airliners as big as office buildings traveling at two hundred miles per hour were reduced to electronic blips on radar screens monitored by air traffic controllers who snapped off continual speed changes as they tried to keep the minimum legal distance between them.
"American Seventy-five, slow to one forty. You're overrunning the Eagle flight ahead. United Three Twenty-six, I said maintain one eighty, sir."
Pilots who flew too fast, or slowed too late, ended up in pilot hell: vectored around for a half hour by unforgiving controllers who would eventually have to squeeze them back into the traffic flow for another try at landing-while the passengers checked their watches and fumed. On the ground, heat undulated in great waves from the blazing-hot metallic skin of the queues of idling Boeing and Airbus products interlaced with smaller regional jets and turboprops to form billion-dollar waiting lines stretching toward the horizon of O'Hare's real estate.
Jake caught the eye of one of his controllers across the room and rolled his eyes in shared agony. The man smiled and nodded.
The background din of strained pilot voices always grated on Jake's nerves, especially when aircrews became testy in response to the staccato instructions of his ground controllers, who usually talked about as fast as human speech allowed.
"All right, United Two Thirteen, O'Hare Ground, I SEE you, and I told you to hold your position. Meridian One One Eight, stop it right there, give way to the Eagle ATR Seventy-two on your right. Lufthansa Twelve, speed it up, sir, I need you out of that alley NOW. Delta Two Seventeen, are you on the frequency?"
"Ah…Delta Two Seventeen is with you."
"Roger, Delta, follow the Meridian Triple-Seven on your left. Air France Twelve, change to tower frequency and wait for him to call YOU."
Diane Jensen, Jake's favorite controller for mostly sexist reasons, appeared at his side from the break room below, adjusting her headset as she prepared to pick up the rhythm and take over for one of the male controllers. She ruffled her short-cropped, honey blond hair and smiled at him. "And now is the season of their discontent," she intoned with mock severity.
"Ours, too," he replied. "Herndon's slowing the inbounds already," he said, his eyes on the distant traffic as he invoked the name of the FAA's Air Traffic Control System Command Center near D.C., "and we're running out of ramp space."
"And I've got a short-tempered brother in that mess down there trying to get to Dallas. I just dropped him off. You'd think he was preparing for battle."
"He was," Jake remarked.
"I suggested Amtrak," she said, moving forward to plug in next to the man she was preparing to relieve. "But he wouldn't listen."
The tie-line from Approach Control was ringing again, and as Jake reached for the receiver, his eyes caught a bright glint of sunlight from a distant car in the clogged traffic outside. He was glad he didn't have to be down there among all those flaring tempers.
RAYBURN HOUSE OFFICE BUILDING, WASHINGTON, D.C.
Colonel David Byrd picked up the papers he'd spread out on the witness table and shoved them in his briefcase before turning to take the outstretched hand of Julian Best, chief of the Aviation Subcommittee staff.
"Nicely done, Colonel," Best said, a grin creasing his craggy features.
"Thanks," David Byrd replied as the insistent chirping of a cell phone began somewhere in the room.
Colonel Byrd tapped the surface of his briefcase. "By the way, Julian, I'm not exaggerating," he said, a dead-serious expression on his angular face. "While we've pretty much solved the terrorist threats, the air rage threat is becoming critical. The summer's just beginning, and this isn't FAA posturing."
Best was smiling. "I know you're not blowing smoke, Colonel. I know your record. Anyone who commanded a special ops squadron, has a row of ribbons that impressive, and handled the things you've handled is too tough to send to Capitol Hill on a B.S. mission."
The chirp of a cell phone interrupted them and Byrd shrugged as he gestured to the phone.
"No problem, Colonel. I'll be in touch," Julian said as he turned to go.
Byrd opened the phone and turned toward the nearest wall to concentrate on the call, momentarily puzzled by angry words on the other end.
"This is Lieutenant General Overmeyer, Colonel. What in holy hell do you think you're doing testifying to Congress without my approval or a Pentagon handler? I just saw your ugly mug on television in uniform! Who gave you authority to go on C-Span in uniform and make policy statements?"
Colonel Byrd pulled up a mental image of General Overmeyer, the Air Force deputy chief of staff, a man known to most of his subordinates as "General Overreactor." The general was powerful and dangerous to the career of any officer who crossed him. Even a full colonel.
"General," the colonel began, "you put me directly under the command of the FAA administrator, and I was testifying at her direction."
"Byrd, you're not there to be a civilian lapdog to be trotted out at the administrator's discretion to chase pet issues up a tree anytime it pleases her."
"General, I take offense at that. I'm hardly a lapdog, I......"
"I want you in my office in thirty minutes, Byrd. Is that understood?"
"Yes, sir. If you insist."
"Apparently I just did. That's a goddamned order. Oh. In case you've forgotten your roots, Colonel, do you need any help finding it? The Pentagon, I mean? It's a big structure near Reagan National."
"General, sarcasm isn't necessary."
"GET YOUR ASS IN HERE!"
The general hung up, leaving David Byrd off-balance, as he calculated the fastest way across the Potomac.
Excerpt from "Turbulence" by John J. Nance, Copyright © 2002, The Putnam Publishing Group, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.