Television Review

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The Independent Culture
NOBODY WANTS to be caught up in a disaster, but everybody wants to feel that they could have been. You must have found yourself telling people, when a bomb has gone off or a holiday plane has crashed, that you were walking down that street only a couple of weeks ago, or that you went there for a fortnight last summer. And some of the most gripping television is the stuff that cashes in on that feeling.

Last night's Equinox (C4), for example, will have given a pleasurable frisson of self- involved terror to anybody who has ever travelled by air. The message of "Near Miss" was that every time you step on board an aeroplane, you are throwing yourself into a hideously complicated and fast-moving ballet of massive metal objects hurtling through the sky at vast speeds and in ever increasing numbers, the whole thing choreographed by a band of overstressed, undervalued men (no women).

The film demonstrated this through the experience of New York's air-traffic controllers. They have to cope with a particularly awkward scenario: the city's three airports (Newark, Kennedy and La Guardia) sit within 15 miles of each other, and each one has to have clearly delineated air corridors for take-off and landing, so that there is no possibility of their traffic getting snarled up. Every time the wind changes at one airport, and it has to get its pilots to land and take off in a new direction, this means that the other two airports have to switch as well.

La Guardia has the bonus of two runways which cross each other, and planes landing and taking off every 45 seconds. All it takes is for one plane to be just a little bit quick or a little bit slow off the mark, and you have the makings of a civil aviation disaster. This is very nearly what happened in April last year, when two planes came within 100ft of one another.

Meanwhile, the controllers have to cope with New York's constant melee of light aircraft - stockbrokers flitting off to the Hamptons, tourist helicopters buzzing the Statue of Liberty - and the fact that their radar registers heavy trucks on flyovers as aircraft. Also, volumes of traffic are heading skywards - Newark has gone up by 50 per cent in the last five years - while the aircraft are getting larger and faster, which means that the distance between them has to be greater and greater. So the controllers are coming under more and more pressure, but have no new staff and no new equipment to cope.

The most gripping parts of the film involved near-misses; but the most frightening were the bits where the men of La Guardia demonstrated the traffic management system they use, which involved strips of paper being time-punched in a clunking gizmo that looked something like a Stone Age prototype stapler. As one controller pointed out, at least this stuff is Y2K compliant.

One controller at Tracon - Terminal Radar Approach Control - talked about a near-miss he had last year, when a plane disappeared off his radar screen. He now spends several hours a day watching a fish tank to calm himself down. Like several of his colleagues, he talked about the necessity to pretend that it is all a video game. You started to get a rather dismal sense that "terminal" is exactly the right word for an airport building.

House of Horrors (ITV) offers a muted version of the same there-but-for-the-grace-of-God tingle. Johnathan Maitland and Peta Harrison, posing as a pair of newly-weds, have been calling on the services of dodgy builders, plumbers, etc, and then filming them with hidden cameras.

Last night, Dean the plumber responded to an artificially induced flow of water from a storage tank - which could have been fixed by fiddling with the ballcock for two seconds - by faking up evidence of a leak and charging pounds 600 to replace the tank. A surveyor insisted that the house's brickwork was leaky, which he demonstrated by pouring a glass of water on to it - the water was promptly soaked up (a proper surveyor explained that this is what your brickwork is meant to do).

Meanwhile, a security systems salesman visited Peta Harrison's supposed mother and told her stories about men with knives hiding in cupboards. Maitland's commentary is over-facetious, but the programme's glee is infectious. Still, what makes it thrilling is seeing how plausible these people are. You realise that this could easily happen to you - in fact, it probably has done. Admit it, don't you feel a bit pleased with yourself?

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