We’ve all had a bad day at work, but air traffic control is one profession where you really can’t afford to have those type of days. Air Controllers are responsible for ensuring thousands of planes and their precious cargo get safely from gate to gate each and every day. Most passengers don’t even think of the coordination, skill, and effort it takes controllers to get an aircraft from one gate to another until something goes wrong. Well that’s what happened on May 18th, 2016 on a regular scheduled Southwest Airlines flight in Dallas, Texas.
It was the perfect storm. A line of hazardous weather had been moving through the area most of the morning which caused numerous flights to be delayed. When a break in the storm appeared, the already delayed flights were brought in as quickly as possible. Bob Gothman, a senior traffic controller at Dallas-Love Field in Texas, stated “I had never seen anything like it before in my 23 years….I sure hope they filed an ATSAP.”
It all started when two Southwest airplanes (SWA51 and SWA1776) were holding out for their assigned gates got the clearance to taxi in. As both proceeded inbound, air traffic controllers did what they do best and ushered them to safety. At approximately 10:23 local time in Dallas, Southwest flight 51 pulled up to gate 8. The passengers began to disembark and head to their connection flights. Air Traffic Controllers began the grueling process of unloading the luggage and other cargo. It wasn’t until the plane was fully unloaded that the controllers discovered their disastrous mistake. They had confused the two Southwest flights and controlled them to the wrong gate. Captain Ramsby from Southwest flight 51 recalled the horrors of that day. “You know, I knew something wasn’t quite right. I couldn’t clearly see the controllers wands while he was directing me in as the fog and haze were limiting my visibility. I thought it was proper procedure to turn the wands on full intensity under these conditions so we could see where we are going.”
The Dallas Airport Authority (DAA) was notified of the event and immediately put the airport into Alert 1 lockdown. All flights were grounded and no additional planes were allowed either in or out of the airport while the baggage was sorted out between the two mistaken Southwest flights. After several hours of chaos, the traffic controllers were finally able to sort out the mess they created and returned the bags to the appropriate flights. A passenger aboard Southwest flight 51, Deborah Reynolds, was in tears describing the account of what took place. “It was just devastating. After what took place today, I don’t know if I’d ever trust traffic controllers again…”
Concerned passengers at the airport were demanding the FAA take immediate action to prevent the occurrence of this type of tragedy in the future. Southwest Airlines reported losing over $8,000,000 in revenue during the period their flights were grounded. Chief Operating Officer of Southwest addressed the passengers concerns and said regardless if the controller submitted an ATSAP report offering him immunity, they will get to the bottom of this and will pursue disciplinary action to the extent possible to ensure this never happens again.