The costs of air traffic control have continued to rise, as has the size of the controller workforce. Decades of steadily increasing air traffic have put excess pressure on air traffic controllers. Planes fly around the clock, and the greenest controllers get saddled with overnight or odd shifts, often stuck in a dark room while senior employees opt for cushy positions in places with little air traffic and good weather. ... It's a mess. But it doesn't have to be this way. ... While the FAA accepted this kind of GPS-based system in theory, it took years to develop compatibility software to allow controllers to receive radar-like position information for their screens. Once this system became operational in Pacific and North Atlantic airspace, it took the FAA more than a decade of testing to adopt a similar program for domestic airspace. In 2003, the FAA put an indefinite hold on development. It wasn't until 2012 that the program relaunched with the capability to begin this year. Even so, it won't be fully operational until 2025. ... The FAA, a government agency, must prove competitive due diligence and receive authorized appropriations from Congress, whose representatives aren't always motivated to close down obsolete facilities, especially if it means losing jobs in their districts. Even the FAA's current plan for bringing in satellite-based nav relies heavily on radar as a backup for GPS surveillance, which reduces funding for a new and modern system. ... Sometimes a controller literally calls the next person in line. Sometimes controllers pass information written on plain old paper. ... What if the business of air traffic control were to break off from the FAA, freeing the system from the bureaucracy of a federal government agency? This isn't just idle talk. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a specialized agency created by the United Nations to manage aviation standards among its 191 member states, recommends all nations separate air traffic control from aviation safety agencies. While nearly all member countries do so, the United States has not.
On New Year's Day in 1985, Eastern Air Lines Flight 980 was carrying 29 passengers and a hell of a lot of contraband when it crashed into the side of a 21,112-foot mountain in Bolivia. For decades conspiracy theories abounded as the wreckage remained inaccessible, the bodies unrecovered, the black box missing. Then two friends from Boston organized an expedition that would blow the case wide open. ... Mount Illimani, a 21,122-foot mass of rocks and glaciers rising from the eastern edge of Bolivia’s Altiplano region, towers over La Paz. The Andean mountain is so textured by ridgelines, high peaks, and shadows that, viewed from the city, it seems to move and change shape throughout the day. ... In all, at least five expeditions have climbed Illimani in search of the wreckage over the past 30 years. None of them found any bodies or flight recorders, nor could anybody establish what brought down the plane. Officially, it was designated a “controlled flight into terrain,” which means it couldn’t be blamed on a bird strike or an engine malfunction or hijackers. The NTSB ultimately filed its own report to supplement the Bolivian one, but it came to the same flat conclusion: the plane was destroyed because it ran into a mountain. ... As time passed, however, details emerged that invited speculation among South American journalists, the families of the victims, and anyone else still following the story. ... Where were the flight recorders? Where were the bodies? ... So here’s another question worth asking: What sort of foolhardy seeker suddenly takes an interest in a 30-year-old plane crash?
But after stopping on a desolate gravel road next to a sign for a gas station, Santillan got the feeling that the voice might be steering him wrong. He’d already been driving for nearly an hour, yet the ETA on the GPS put his arrival time at around 5:20 P.M., eight hours later. He reentered his destination and got the same result. Though he sensed that something was off, he made a conscious choice to trust the machine. He had come here for an adventure, after all, and maybe it knew where he was really supposed to go. ... It’s comforting to know where you are, to see yourself distilled into a steady blue icon gliding smoothly along a screen. With a finger tap or a short request to Siri or Google Now—which, like other smartphone tools, rely heavily on data from cell towers and Wi-Fi hot spots as well as satellites—a wonderful little trail appears on your device, beckoning you to follow. ... The convenience comes at a price, however. There’s the creepy Orwellian fact of Them always knowing where We are (or We always knowing where They are). More concerning are the navigation-fail horror stories that have become legend. ... Enough people have been led astray by their GPS in Death Valley that the area’s former wilderness coordinator called the phenomenon “death by GPS.” ... By turning on a GPS every time we head somewhere new, we’re also cutting something fundamental out of the experience of traveling: the adventures and surprises that come with finding—and losing—our way. ... Individuals who frequently navigate complex environments the old-fashioned way, by identifying landmarks, literally grow their brains.
Maps are for humans, but how do animals, which began navigating millions of years before parchment was invented, manage to find their way around? Do animal (and human) brains contain a map, and if so does it have islands and capes, North Poles and Equators, reference lines and so on? And if they do, where is it, and how does it work? How could a jelly-like blob of protoplasm contain anything as structured as a map? ... These questions have intrigued biologists for many decades, particularly because animals can perform astonishing feats such as navigating their way from the North Pole to the South and back again, like the Arctic tern; or returning home after being transported hundreds of miles away, like the homing pigeon. How animals (both human and non-human) work out their location is just beginning to be understood by brain scientists. There are maps in the brain, as it happens. The properties of these maps, which neuroscientists call ‘cognitive maps’, have turned out to be highly intriguing, and are helping us to understand not just how animals navigate, but also more general principles about how the brain forms, stores and retrieves knowledge.