When a passenger stopped breathing aboard a U.S. Airways flight last week, she seemed to be in the best situation possible under the circumstances. Three nurses on board volunteered to help, and the jet even had its own heart defibrillator like this one.
But the passenger didn't respond. The pilot declared a medical emergency, and air traffic controllers diverted the plane to nearby Baltimore-Washington International Airport, where it was inexplicably put in a holding pattern, then lined up behind three other jets. Almost twenty minutes after the pilot first declared the emergency, the plane finally landed. Then, another jet blocked its path before it could reach the gate.
By then, the 50-year old passenger was dead. It's not clear whether a quicker arrival could have saved her life. But the FAA admits the situation "could have been handled better," and ordered all air traffic controllers to review emergency procedures to "provide maximum assistance to aircraft in distress."
But controllers are only half of the equation. Once the crew determines there is an emergency, says Susan Coughlin, a former National Transportation Safety Board official, "It's then up the pilots to very clearly articulate that to the air traffic controllers in words that the air traffic controllers understand, and in words that will really convey the nature of the emergency."
Some critics maintain the FAA has been too slow to modernize the aging air traffic control system, putting controllers under a lot of extra pressure and stress in trying to make an old system work.