Warning that there appears to be "an erosion of safety" in the air traffic control system, the National Transportation Safety Board has recommended "immediate action" to reduce congestion at some major airports--including Los Angeles International.
In a report to the Federal Aviation Administration, the NTSB predicted Wednesday that the margin of safety in air travel will dwindle as summertime traffic increases because the FAA has too few qualified air traffic controllers and an ineffective traffic control system.
The NTSB findings echo complaints by some public officials, labor representatives, controllers and maintenance personnel that the FAA's air traffic control system is overburdened and increasingly prone to error.
The NTSB report recommended that the FAA immediately take steps to rearrange flight schedules to lessen congestion during morning and evening rush hours, and recommended that the FAA maintain a standard of 10 miles of horizontal separation between high-altitude jets.
The recommendations of the NTSB--a non-regulatory federal agency--are not binding on the FAA, but FAA Assistant Administrator Steve Hayes said Wednesday that "we will take a very, very serious look at them."
Hayes contended, however, that "it appears, to a great extent, they are suggesting that we do what we are already doing." Hayes added that "the margin of safety in aviation is still extremely high."
The NTSB said in its report that it is concerned that near-misses aloft between airliners and other planes increased 42% last year over the previous year. The report said that "runway incursions"--in which one plane taxied into the path of another aircraft on a runway--increased 50% between 1984 and 1986.
While not all such incidents can be attributed to air traffic control errors, the NTSB said that operational errors that resulted in planes coming too close together on the ground and in the air increased 18% during the first quarter of 1987, when compared to the first quarter of 1986.
Among the six incidents cited by the NTSB in its report to the FAA was a "runway incursion" that occurred at LAX on Feb. 23.
Continental Airlines Flight 866, a Boeing 727 jetliner with 84 passengers aboard, had been cleared by FAA controllers that afternoon for takeoff on Runway 25 Right for a flight to Houston. At the same time, the NTSB said, the controllers cleared a twin-engine Cessna 210 cargo plane to taxi across the same runway.
The NTSB said the jetliner accelerated down the runway and had just lifted off when its right main landing gear struck the tail structure of the Cessna crossing beneath it.
The Cessna suffered "substantial damage" in the collision but the jetliner, apparently unharmed, continued on its planned flight and later landed safely in Houston. No one was injured in the incident.
FAA officials indicated a few days later that the airliner and the Cessna had received conflicting instructions from controllers in the LAX tower.
In the report released Wednesday, the NTSB said that "nearly all" of the air traffic controllers interviewed at random for the report "expressed concern" about the increasing levels of traffic they were required to handle.
The report said FAA figures substantiated this concern, showing that flight operations at the nation's 22 leading airports increased more than 10% between 1981 and 1987--a period during which the number of controllers and their average experience levels dropped as a result of President Reagan's firing of 11,500 controllers who had gone on strike.
Despite "commendable" efforts by the FAA to rebuild the controller work force, the NTSB said, the staff has yet to reach full strength, and "it will take years" to acquire an experience level equal to that before the 1981 walkout.
"While controllers did not believe that the current situation should be characterized as 'unsafe,' many believed that an unsafe condition could develop if the traffic volume continues to increase," the report said. "Many of the controllers . . . expressed concern that the controller staff on board will not be sufficient in terms of numbers, qualifications and experience to cope with the needs of their facility during the coming summer."
'Immediate Need' for Action
The NTSB said that because of its "strong concern" about the safety of the air traffic control system this summer, when the traffic is expected to experience its usual seasonal upsurge, there is an "immediate need for FAA action to reduce air traffic density."
To achieve this, the NTSB said in one of its major recommendations, the FAA should "impose realistic flight scheduling by all the air carriers."
At present, airlines tend to schedule flights during hours thought to be most convenient to the traveler--with resulting bunching of flights during morning and evening rush hours. Departure boards at busy "hub" airports frequently show half a dozen or more flights all scheduled to take off at the same time.