WASHINGTON — The number of near-collisions between aircraft in the skies over California has more than doubled in the last five years, and they now occur at a rate of one every two days, according to data released Wednesday by the Federal Aviation Administration.
California leads the nation in near-collisions, the data shows and more than half the state's close calls occur in Southern California, described by aviation experts as having perhaps the most crowded skies in the world.
Of the 709 California near-collisions reported by pilots since 1981, the FAA classified 155 as "critical"--defined as planes coming within 100 feet of each another. A few involved distances of less than 10 feet, according to the computer list that was made public by the agency in response to news media requests after Sunday's collision of an Aeromexico DC-9 and a private plane over Cerritos.
188 Incidents in 1985
The report cited 188 "pilot reports of near midair collision incidents" in California in 1985, compared to 134 in 1984, 110 in 1983, 76 in 1982 and 87 in 1981. So far in 1986, the agency said, 114 incidents have been reported.
Nationwide, the rate of near-collisions has shown a similar increase, from 395 in 1981 to 758 in 1985. About 400 were reported in the first half of this year, the FAA said.
In Orange County, the number of close calls has more than doubled since 1981. Of 59 near-collisions in Orange County reported by pilots during the last five years, the FAA data shows that 21 were "critical," using the 100-foot gauge.
An FAA computer printout showed the locations of the incidents as reported by pilots, but officials said this information is approximate and is sometimes based on the location of the FAA facility that received the initial complaint. The data showed that 26 of the 59 near-collisions reported for Orange County occurred in or around Santa Ana.
The aviation industry refers to John Wayne Airport as "Santa Ana," just as Lindbergh Field in San Diego is referred to as "San Diego." John Wayne Airport is actually located in an unincorporated county area.
13 in El Toro Area
Thirteen close-calls were reported in the El Toro area, where both military and FAA controllers direct aircraft near the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and the entire coastal area, including semi-final approaches to John Wayne Airport and Los Angeles International Airport.
Six near-collisions were reported for the Seal Beach area, where air traffic from several airports--Long Beach, Los Alamitos, Meadowlark in Huntington Beach and John Wayne--tend to converge over the coastline. Five incidents were listed for Tustin, which is where commercial jets start their final approach to John Wayne.
The remaining close calls were scattered over Newport Beach, Dana Point, Anaheim, Costa Mesa, La Habra and San Clemente.
FAA officials denied that the increase in reported incidents since 1981 reflects a shortage of air traffic controllers at John Wayne Airport or at the El Toro facility. The officials said the facilities are fully staffed and controllers are not being forced to work overtime.
Some members of Congress have maintained that at least part of the national increase in near-misses could be attributed to the air traffic controllers' strike in 1981, during which thousands were fired by President Reagan. The FAA disputes that contention, however, and its report cites no causes for the rise in incidents.
Nevertheless, Rep. Glenn M. Anderson (D-San Pedro), a ranking member of the House Public Works and Transportation subcommittee on aviation, said the newly released report indicates the need for additional air traffic controllers in the Los Angeles area.
"The FAA tells us it is safe, but they admit they don't have enough controllers," Anderson said in a telephone interview. "We need more."
Anderson said he called Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-San Jose), chairman of the subcommittee, this week to suggest early congressional hearings on the Cerritos disaster. He said Mineta replied that hearings should be deferred until more information is available on the cause of the collision.
Mineta could not be reached for comment, but an aide said the congressman believes that "it is too premature" to schedule hearings.
Several aviation experts attributed the rate of near-collisions in the Los Angeles area to the heavy volume of commercial, military and general aviation traffic, to generally good weather that promotes private flying and to such factors as mountains and smog.
"The L.A. Basin has the densest traffic anywhere," said John E. O'Brien, director of engineering and air safety of the Air Line Pilots Assn. "Then you've got the mountains on the east, the ocean on the west, sometimes the smog layer and the location of the airports. These all conspire to make it not only busy but a sometimes difficult area to operate in."
'A Lot More Factors'
He added: "I'm not saying it is unsafe, but I'm saying there are a lot more factors to contend with. Everything has to be done right."