Five years ago this week I chaired a House subcommittee hearing at Van Nuys Airport that focused on what could be done to prevent a replay of the awful tragedy that occurred in 1978 when a PSA jetliner and a private plane collided above San Diego.
In light of Sunday's disaster in Cerritos when a single-engine Piper slammed into an Aeromexico DC-9 on its approach to Los Angeles International Airport, one could believe that the hearing failed to produce ways to avoid such collisions. Logic, after all, tells us that if something could be done to avoid these kinds of disasters we would have taken the necessary steps by now.
That is not the case. At the Van Nuys hearing the Federal Aviation Administration's deputy administrator said that the decision to proceed with the traffic-alert and collision-avoidance system, or TCAS, was firm and that system installation would be under way in 36 to 48 months. TCAS was designed to be fail-safe, bypassing ground-based controllers and sending a signal directly to a pilot to warn of the approach of another aircraft. In the more sophisticated systems, the ones that would be equipped on commercial airliners, pilots would be given instruction on what direction to move to avoid a collision with the other aircraft.
Today this system is still not in use.
Instead, the FAA has continued testing and revising it, constantly saying that there is yet another technological advance right around the corner. In other words, the agency is holding off on implementing a decision that was presumably "firm" five years ago.
Testing is all well and good; the aviation industry grew out of new technology, and its lifeblood continues to rely on technological improvements. Advances should be sought. But this should not be used as a reason for not installing a system that could have avoided the Aeromexico tragedy and that could prevent future disasters.
Another reason given for the delay is budgetary, but that is pure hogwash.
The Airport and Airways Trust Fund has a surplus on hand of more than $8 billion. Those funds have been generated by taxes imposed on users of our airways--commercial airline passengers and private pilots. They are collected specifically and solely for the purpose of making improvements in our aviation infrastructure--including the upgrading of airports and enhancement of air-traffic-control technology. The Administration has let that $8-billion surplus grow because it helps make the overall budget picture look better than it really is; the surplus serves to offset shortfalls elsewhere when someone looks at the bottom line of the federal budget. Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-San Jose), who chairs the House public works subcommittee on aviation, has been pushing--with my strong support--to take this trust fund and others like it out of the general budget. Thus the funds would be used for their specifically earmarked purposes and not for continued budgetary sleight of hand.
In addition to the use of federal money, putting these systems in general-aviation aircraft and commercial airliners would involve significant costs to manufacturers and users. For a typical general-aviation plane, adding the transponders necessary to transmit the TCAS signals would cost about $2,500.
Representing a congressional district that is the home of an overwhelming majority of general-aviation manufacturers, I am not one who is anxious to add to the costs of those aircraft--especially when unemployment in the industry is more than 50%. But I am convinced that this is a cost that must be borne to prevent loss of life. Earlier this week the head of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn., the group that represents many of this country's private pilots, indicated that he too is confident that pilots are willing to bear this cost in order to get TCAS into aircraft without further delay. Indeed, the Piper involved in Sunday's crash already was equipped with a transponder. Had TCAS been in operation and the proper adapter placed on that transponder, this tragedy might have never occurred.
But, just to make sure that the system is used by as many pilots as possible, we should also examine setting aside part of that huge $8-billion surplus--which was generated to make possible improvements in air safety--to set up some sort of cost-sharing plan. It can be done. It should be done.
For 20 years we have had one collision-avoidance technology or another available that could have been providing a backup system in case controllers failed to notice two aircraft on a collision course or the pilots couldn't see the problem themselves.
The FAA hasn't gone ahead because the Administration has imposed artificial budgetary constraints on it or because there always seems to be a better answer "just around the corner."
The time has come to stop talking and start acting so that we can get these systems in place and save lives.