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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

In the clouds

A pre-dawn plane ride is the latest lesson in the limits of federal government

Issue: "Tick, tick, tick ...," May 7, 2011

I keep trying to put this out of my mind-but three weeks later, I can't shake it off.

My late evening flight from Charlotte to Asheville was already delayed because of "maintenance issues" at LaGuardia in New York. But the airline personnel said we'd take off at 12:15 a.m., and I'd be home by 1 a.m. The "issues," though, proved to be more serious than they thought, forcing the airline to find alternate "equipment" which would depart, they said, a little after 1:00. Still better, I thought, than checking into a hotel and not getting home until lunch time tomorrow.

It's only a 22-minute flight from Charlotte to Asheville-which means it was a little ominous when after 45 minutes in the air we still hadn't landed-and especially because we were circling through mountains. "We're going to give you a little extra this morning," the pilot finally explained. "I can't seem to raise anybody at the Asheville tower-seems like they've gone home for the night-so we're going on to the next nearest airport, which is Knoxville, Tenn."

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The pilot's announcement reminded me that just a few days earlier, a similar circumstance had troubled authorities responsible for Reagan airport in Washington, D.C., where two commercial airliners had landed late at night while a controller in the tower was catching a catnap.

If it's not too late now to make a long story short, I'll report that we arrived safely in Knoxville sometime after 2 a.m., where a fleet of taxicabs eventually ferried us-on winding roads through the mountains-back to the Asheville airport about 6 a.m. The Asheville control tower had already been open for an hour for a new day's business. "All's well that ends well," we're told.


Except that some 40 passengers, and then their families, and then the general public who over the next several days heard about this bizarre event, had to wrestle with a growing list of sobering questions.

The Asheville tower, we learned, regularly closes at 11 p.m. It has done so for years-along with most control towers at all but the nation's biggest airports. When the last controller left the tower, he'd apparently left one critical switch in the wrong position, making it too risky for us to land. Too bad. Nobody had his home phone number. Amazingly, everybody was at a loss for a backup plan.

What was not lost on these 40 passengers was the keen sense that in yet another of its many, many assignments, the federal government was goofing up yet again. True, we were on a flight operated by a big private corporation. But the rules and procedures established for that flight come from the Federal Aviation Administration. And it just so happened that this was the third or fourth incident within a few days when FAA people had been-almost literally-asleep at the switch. Those lapses led last week to the resignation of a top FAA official and suspension for five air traffic controllers.

So let me ask you: If you were sitting there in Seat 8F, descending through the clouds and the tops of the Great Smoky Mountains, would you be inclined to be praying that the folks who run Congress, the postal service, the nation's public schools, the IRS, and Fannie Mae mortgage services would now guide you to a safe landing? And would you be thinking how spiffy it might be to add our nation's medical care to the list of such a government's existing assignments?

Or might you join those of us who were standing in the dark at 3 a.m., waiting for a cab ride back through those same mountains, and thinking that there must be, somewhere, a better solution.
Email Joel Belz

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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