I am a big fan of the movie Airplane!. Today, I happened across its serious predecessor Airport.

“Airport” was one of a whole series of air disaster films created during the 1970s. They went from okay to stinkier than kerosene exhaust, much like the earth-destruction meteor/volcano/tornado cliche factories in the 1990s. “Airport” was perhaps the first of them, and thus the least bad. It featured real actors (Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin), and made some attempt at technical plausibility. Sure, the suicidal passenger was overly obvious, the bomb he carried was impossibly ineffectual, the pilot/controller/official suffered stress acted at the level of catatonia, and the emotional outbursts of the passengers plainly begged for spoofing by the Zucker/Abraham/Zucker trinity. But one thing they got right was the air traffic control matters.

It gave me shivers to hear on the TV snippets like this: “Global 1, descend and maintain flight level two niner zero, pilot’s discretion.”, “You are leaving my sector. Contact Toronto Center at one one seven point two.”, “Request precision approach radar approach.”, “On the glide slope, turn left heading two seven five.”, “If receiving no reports for five seconds, break off radar approach, climb straight ahead.”. It was the first time I saw real live clips of operating air traffic controller equipment in the sixties: the old approach radar screens, the awesome PAR screen.

Then it hit me. This film was made before I was born, but the air traffic system has barely changed. Those radio conversations could have occurred yesterday. I flew a PAR approach at Trenton just last year, and it sounded the same. It’s the same darned system, almost forty years later. Longevity of good design, like road traffic laws? Or technology stagnation?