In a reversal that surprised and delighted Southern California's general aviation community, Federal Aviation Administration chief T. Allan McArtor said Friday that he will reopen a chunk of airspace over Los Angeles International Airport to pilots who want to cross the Los Angeles Basin without air traffic control restrictions.
Besides restoring the so-called "visual-flight-rules corridor," McArtor said the FAA plans to add two other general aviation paths through the basin for pilots who wish to fly at faster speeds. Traffic in these new "transition" routes will be directed by controllers.
Both the visual-flight corridor and the new transition routes will allow pilots to more easily cut through the restrictive Los Angeles Terminal Control Area (TCA). An FAA spokeswoman said the precise location of the corridor and the transition routes are still under study. She said the changes are expected to take effect Feb. 15.
The announcement was a major victory for the general aviation community, which had accused McArtor of overreacting to public pressure for safer commercial airline travel.
"Everybody won," said Henry Ditmar, manager of Santa Monica Airport. "There were no losers. . . . The moral of the story is sometimes you can get to that point if you consult with all those involved."
McArtor angered local pilots last August when he issued an emergency order that drastically raised the height of the TCA and closed the lightly regulated visual-flight corridor.
The corridor, which allowed unrestricted travel between 2,500 and 5,000 feet, was used by 150 to 300 pilots a day to make trips north and south of the Los Angeles Basin.
The TCA is a segment of airspace about 50 miles long and 25 miles wide around Los Angeles International Airport. It contains several layers with various floor and ceiling altitudes. Planes cannot enter this area without permission from air traffic controllers and without special altitude-reporting equipment.
In his August order, McArtor raised the ceiling of the TCA to 12,500 feet from 7,000 feet.
The combined effect of the two changes was to force most private pilots to either fly around the TCA or underneath it. Lobbyists for private pilots, air traffic controllers and airline pilots all condemned the alternatives. They predicted that the changes would force private planes into areas that would either conflict with airline flight paths or encourage them to cut through Los Angeles at altitudes as low as 1,000 feet.
McArtor argued that the visual-flight corridor had to be eliminated because it would have become dangerously crowded with pilots whose planes were not powerful enough to climb above the increased TCA ceiling.
McArtor imposed the restrictions a few weeks after taking over as FAA chief, amidst intense public pressure for aviation safety that had mounted ever since a private plane flew into the TCA over Cerritos in August, 1986, and collided with an Aeromexico jet, killing 82 people.
The resulting opposition from pilot groups, which included a federal court suit that is still pending, was equally intense. McArtor was widely criticized for acting arbitrarily and without regard for balancing the competing needs of commercial and general aviation.
The FAA administrator announced his decision to restore the visual-flight corridor during a Los Angeles meeting with pilots, airport managers and traffic controllers who advocated keeping the corridor.
No such announcement had been expected. The day before, McArtor had addressed a conference of aviation executives in Anaheim and, while noting the possibility of new transition routes, said nothing about the restoration of the visual-flight corridor.
"We're delighted. We're surprised," said Patricia Weil, a spokeswoman for the 240,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn., which lobbies against restrictions on general aviation.
Anthony Skirlick, an air traffic controller and spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn., praised McArtor for his flexibility.
"I think this is a landmark decision," he said. "It's the right one."
Airline pilots had praised the FAA for raising the TCA ceiling, but took issue with the closure of the visual-flight corridor, warning that it would encourage private planes to fly around the eastern edge of the TCA at altitudes that would conflict with approach patterns of jets bound for Los Angeles International.
An FAA spokeswoman said that once a consensus was reached on creating new, controlled transition routes through the TCA during McArtor's meeting with general aviation representatives Friday, the FAA administrator became convinced that the visual-flight corridor could be restored without risking an overflow of traffic.
The FAA spokeswoman said that under the new rules, the visual-flight corridor will be open only to planes flying at relatively low speeds. Planes wishing to fly at higher speeds will have to use the more controlled transition routes.