Air Traffic Control

In-flight Entertainment

You’d expect to have a hellish couple of hours when you arrive at the airport and upon check-in are informed that the gate has control of the seat assignments: the flight’s full and you’re going to be stuck in a middle seat between an overweight Texan and a screaming child. Not so on my recent flight aboard United 1648, San Francisco to Calgary. Aside from the additional five inches of legroom, a luxury in itself, you have to hand it to United for this stroke of genius in in-flight entertainment: air traffic control on channel nine.

“United sixteen forty-eight, runway Kilo, you are cleared for takeoff.”—“Kilo sixteen forty-eight.” I am going for a job interview, somewhat tense, and need something to take my mind off things. They don’t show movies on two-hour flights. The terse yet melodic sequences of numbers, spaced between 30-second intervals of silence, are the perfect combination of soothing lullaby and riveting Hörspiel. “United sixteen forty-eight contact Bay Departure one-zero-two point niner”—“one zero-two point niner sixteen-forty-eight have a good day.” One baritone, slightly obscured by static, follows another. Only Bay Departure is a female voice. “United sixteen forty-eight rise to two-five-zero heading one-five-niner”—“Passing twenty-five hundred sixteen-forty-eight.” Other airliners also announce their position, receive directions, and dutifully repeat the information back to the tower, always followed by the call sign. “United sixteen-forty-eight maintain flight level two-eight-zero”—“two eight-zero united sixteen-forty-eight.” All these people in all these planes going different places. I wonder what Canada will be like.

Finally, after an hour, another female voice: Seattle Central. There seem to be no women pilots flying the friendly skies of the Pacific Northwest today. “Roger, United sixteen-forty-eight.” I wonder where all the other planes are going. “United sixteen forty-eight you got traffic 10 o’clock eastbound five miles a thousand feet below you”—”Thanks sixteen-fortyeight.” I drift off to sleep, imagining how exciting overhearing a mid-air crisis must be—collision, hijack, something of the sort. “United sixteen-forty-eight contact Vancouver Center one-zero-five-five point three”—“One-zero-five-five point three sixteen-forty-eight”—“Vancouver Centre United sixteen forty-eight flight level two-eight-zero” “United sixteen forty-eight Roger.” It occurs to me that living a life is always somewhere between the air traffic controller who’s “pushing tin”and the pilot following directions. I feel like I’m in the tower right now, juggling several planes, and wish I could sit back instead, setting the autopilot as I’m told.

When I wake up, we’re already talking to Calgary Arrival, who sounds just like Reverend Lovejoy from the Simpsons. I’m not sure if that makes the prospect of moving to Calgary more or less appealing. “Sixteen forty-eight heading zero-one-zero sixty knots visual approach left.” The Rockies still shine snow-bright in the afternoon sun below, and I’m again raptly following the conversation with the tower. “Sixteen forty-eight you’re cleared to land on runway Charlie four.” At last the monotony of numbers is broken by letters of the alphabet. “United sixteen forty-eight taxi Yankee Charlie niner thirty-four”. Soon thereafter, I walk up the gangplank at gate 34, desperately trying to remember how to spell the letter “J.

Richard Zach