WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration plans to require the nation's major airlines to install new collision avoidance equipment aboard their large passenger jets, top agency officials said Friday.
FAA Administrator Donald D. Engen said that, after years of discussion and development, the sophisticated technology to help warn pilots of potential collisions is now ready.
Engen's decision reflects a major shift in policy for the FAA, which had supported a voluntary approach to development of a collision avoidance system by private industry as well as by the airlines.
"We're going to force the issue," Engen told a group of reporters.
The FAA, motivated in part by the collision of an Aeromexico DC-9 and a small private airplane over Cerritos, Calif., on Aug. 31, will issue a proposed rule next year requiring large aircraft to be equipped with a Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (commonly referred to as TCAS).
The final rule probably will be established about two years later, and the airborne systems could be in use by the end of the decade, according to the FAA.
The collision avoidance system uses radar and computers to track nearby aircraft and determine their proximity. A screen in the cockpit allows pilots to determine how close other planes are. Symbols on the screen show pilots whether the approaching traffic is above them or below them and the approximate speed at which another plane is climbing or descending.
If another plane comes closer than about 2.3 miles, the system sounds an alarm, and flashing arrows tell the pilot whether to climb or descend to avoid a collision.
The systems would be required on an estimated 3,000 planes and are expected to cost between $50,000 and $100,000 each--or as much as $300 million for the nation's airline fleet.
The FAA has spent more than $50 million in research and development on the collision avoidance system. After reviewing the issue in recent weeks, one official said, the FAA has concluded that TCAS is a practical collision avoidance system and decided to speed its production and use.
However, one FAA official said that "there was no movement in the area that really counts, and the area that really counts is a private sector initiative to develop a product and sell it." The official spoke on condition that he not be identified.
More Sophisticated Device
An even more sophisticated system now under development is expected to inform pilots whether they should turn left or right as well as climb or dive. Engen said the FAA's goal is to have standards for this system ready by September, 1987.
Engen refused to blame the airline industry, equipment manufacturers or the FAA for any delay in implementing an airborne collision avoidance system. "There is enough blame to go around for everybody," he said.
Aviation industry spokesmen insisted that they have long urged the development of an effective collision avoidance system and attributed delays to problems with technology and funding.
"We have been disappointed in the delay," said Thomas M. Tripp, spokesman for the Air Transport Assn. of America, which represents the nation's major airlines.
Want Bugs Eliminated
Airlines, as well as pilots' groups, stressed that all potential bugs should be worked out of the sensitive system before it is installed.
"If TCAS gives you a false reading or a mistaken advisory, you might cause an accident instead of preventing one," Tripp said. However, he added, "I don't think anybody thinks we can't work the bugs out eventually."
Still others involved in FAA work on the development of the collision avoidance system say some problems remain. For example, they say, alarms could be activated when airplanes are approaching airports to land on parallel runways.
In addition, Tripp and others stressed that the effectiveness of the system depends on whether other aircraft, especially small private planes, have devices called transponders, which emit a signal alerting other pilots to their presence. Such devices are required for many types of small aircraft, but others are exempted, such as some that fly in rural areas.
The small single-engine Piper aircraft involved in the accident over Cerritos had a transponder but did not have more sophisticated equipment that could relay its altitude.
Engen said the FAA plans to expand current requirements for small planes to be equipped with the more sophisticated devices, but he gave no timetable.