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Crowded Air: an Invitation to Collisions

September 07, 1986|Christopher J. Witkowski | Christopher J. Witkowski is executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project

WASHINGTON — The air-ground horror that occurred over Cerritos last Sunday might have been prevented if the small Piper plane had been equipped with an altitude-reporting device.

Since 1954, the Federal Aviation Administration (and its predecessor, the Civil Aeronautics Administration) has had a mandate to resolve the midair collision problem. Many plans, proposals and electronic systems later, the problem has yet to be fully addressed, as the midair collision of the private plane and Aeromexico Flight 498 near Los Angeles International Airport proved.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn.--260,000 non-commercial aircraft owners and aviators--has successfully fought all attempts to place restrictions on planes operating near most major airports. This group, with many influential members, is comparable to the National Rifle Assn. in terms of organized power in Washington. Its ability to fight any restrictions on the freedom to fly is like the NRA's stranglehold over Congress in defending the right to bear arms. In addition, many upper-level FAA personnel, including the head of the agency, are private pilots sympathetic to the general aviators' concerns.

This may explain AOPA success in forcing the FAA to back down after proposing a series of important safety restrictions following the 1978 midair collision of a jetliner and a small plane in San Diego. At that time, the FAA recommended an extensive program to provide increased separation between commercial airliners and private aircraft. The FAA said that the major factor in potential midair collisions was traceable to private aircraft not being under full air traffic control, and that this could be almost eliminated by regulating congested air space--meaning, for example, the skies surrounding airports. Most of these proposals, including expanded requirements for altitude-reporting transponders, were withdrawn after vigorous AOPA opposition. Instead, the FAA reiterated the long-standing advice that pilots "see and avoid" other aircraft, advice consistently criticized as seriously inadequate by the National Transportation Safety Board in midair collision accident reports since 1969.

In March, the Air Transport Assn. (the major airlines lobbying group) asked the FAA to require a transponder with automatic altitude-reporting on planes in all terminal air space where the FAA provides radar service and in all controlled air space above 4,000 feet. The National Air Line Pilots Assn. supports this proposal and wants pilots flying in these areas to be qualified to fly on instruments as well as licensed to fly by visual rules.

Such proposals are designed to stem the alarming increase in near midair collisions since 1983. The equipment would cost AOPA members roughly $1,500, plus installation, and the membership has lobbied strongly against such an added expense. However, the Congressional Budget Office, in a recent study, concluded that general aviation was, in fact, not paying its fair share to the Airport and Airway Improvement Fund.

Only a few airports have taken steps to limit general-aviation use during peak traffic hours. The New York Port Authority charges a much higher landing fee during peak traffic hours--thus diverting general aviation aircraft to smaller fields and substantially cutting down delays at Newark, Kennedy and La Guardia airports.

Logan Airport in Boston is attempting to do the same thing but is being challenged by the AOPA on grounds of discrimination.

Another general-aviation group, the National Business Aircraft Assn., representing many corporations with private jets and full-time pilots, has already absorbed the fees that the AOPA is disputing.

If money really counts, the AOPA may be overlooking studies showing the costly effects of delays on general-aviation aircraft using major airports. These costs are measured in the time lost by high-paid business people and the expense of keeping planes in the air during delays.

Air-traffic controllers are required to offer assistance to a pilot when another aircraft may collide with his plane. Whether this assistance was absent in the Cerritos case will probably be addressed in the accident report. An automatic altitude report from the Piper would, in any case, have instantly alerted the controller to impending danger.

The FAA now claims that it will restrict air space available to small planes. There are other measures that would improve the safety of the air traffic control system:

--The Reagan Administration should lift the ban on rehiring air controllers fired in 1981. Since that time, the average experience level for air-traffic controllers has dropped from 15 to five years; there are 40% fewer full-performance-level controllers, and qualification requirements for such controllers have been significantly reduced. FAA claims of having to retrain former controllers are exaggerated; more than 500 have won their jobs back on appeal and have been accepted by former colleagues.

--The FAA and the Congress should push for spending the billions of dollars in the Airport Trust Fund (now carried on Administration balance books as a way of making the federal deficit look smaller) to build safety equipment and other improvements at small airports, making them more attractive to private pilots.

One reason for the 1978 midair collision over San Diego was that Lindbergh Field was the only airport in the area with an instrument landing system; the student pilot flying the small plane needed it for practice. If smaller airports, used primarily by private pilots, were equipped with instrument landing systems, commercial aircraft would fly into significantly less traffic at major airports.

--If these simpler measures are stymied, put a lid on air traffic.

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