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A Flight Rule Change for 'Safety' Makes the Skies More Dangerous

September 27, 1987|Barry Schiff and Bart Everett | Barry Schiff is an L-1011 captain for a major airline and an aviation journalist; Bart Everett is a general-aviation flight instructor and a Times news editor.

At 10,000 feet over Ontario, the view from a jetliner's cockpit is often spectacular. Forty miles ahead, the Pacific Ocean sparkles through the perennial haze; the San Gabriel Mountains tower to the right; to the left, foothills and valleys undulate beneath a misty veil.

But as the captain reduces speed for the final approach into Los Angeles International Airport, he has his eyes on more than the scenery. He and others in the cockpit are scanning the skies for other traffic, for this is the busiest airspace in the world. And human eyes--even in the so-called "radar environment"--are a pilot's first line of defense.

Not only is there an almost incessant flow of jetliners and other aircraft arriving and departing LAX, there usually are many other aircraft, large and small, crisscrossing the Los Angeles Basin en route to other destinations.

Over the years, methods of keeping this traffic safely separated around busy hubs like Los Angeles have become highly efficient, but not perfect. The machines are more reliable than ever, the pilots more highly trained. But there are still brushes with the unexpected, and--on rare occasions--a fatal mistake or failure.

Seldom, however, have political actions had a negative effect on aviation safety. Yet that is what happened last month when the new Federal Aviation Administrator, T. Allan McArtor, ordered a change that affects most pilots who fly in the Los Angeles area. While the public may believe his action enhances safety, aviation professionals, including those within the FAA, know better.

Most of the traffic over Los Angeles belongs to the huge general-aviation fleet, a segment of the aviation community little understood by the public at large. These aircraft are often and erroneously referred to as "little airplanes" flown by "private" pilots.

Critics have suggested banning "little airplanes"--general aviation--from major metropolitan areas. That could be done, but it would be as ill-conceived as banning private automobiles from the freeway system in favor of buses and other public carriers. Airplanes not operated by airlines provide broad and useful services:

-- For every community served by an airline, 23 are served by general aviation. General aviation is the only way to fly from Los Angeles to Blythe, Bishop or hundreds of other destinations in California. (Following airline deregulation, most carriers abandoned service to smaller communities; now more than half of all airline passengers fly to only 25 major U.S. cities.)

-- There are 4,800 airliners in the United States, but nearly a quarter-million general-aviation aircraft that annually carry 200 million people on 80 million flights, a load greater than that carried by five of the nation's largest carriers combined. The FAA classifies only 6% of general-aviation flights as "recreational."

-- Using a wide variety of aircraft--from single-seat to transport--general aviation makes possible air ambulances, aerial fire-fighting, crop dusting and spraying, air search and rescue, aerial law enforcement, aerial news and traffic reporting and a plethora of other vital services, including critical delivery of human organs for transplants.

Although lacking the high profile of the airlines, general aviation encompasses every type of civil flying imaginable except scheduled airline flights. And most pilots, whatever aircraft they fly, share a deep concern for safety. It is absurd to suggest otherwise. General-aviation pilots and their passengers have the same aversion to midair collision as airline pilots and their passengers.

That is why general-aviation pilots objected to McArtor's ruling that increased the size of the terminal-control area (restricted airspace) surrounding LAX, and why there were similar objections by the Air Line Pilots Assn., the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn., the National Air Transport Assn. and virtually every other aviation organization interested in safety. The reason is simple: The FAA's emergency regulation increases the potential for midair collision.

The aviation industry blames such an ill-conceived regulation on political expediency. Industry leaders contend that, as the first anniversary of the Cerritos disaster approached, public attention would focus on what the FAA had done to prevent a similar tragedy. Since the FAA had done virtually nothing, action was needed to save face. Hence, McArtor, bypassing the normal rule-making process, made a change certain to be applauded by the public at large: After all, who could oppose "safety?"

Thus the Administration gained immediate support from people alarmed and frustrated by overcrowded terminals, delays and an image of "crowded skies." Such a rule change, they were told, would eliminate the potential for midair collision. If this solution seemed too simple for such a complex problem, few outside the aviation industry noticed.

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