COSTA MESA — As the FAA weighed recommendations more than two years ago to require more landing distance between Boeing 757 jetliners and planes following them, the agency found itself trying to serve two oft-competing masters: the welfare of the public it is charged to protect and the industry it was formed to promote.
At the root of recent revelations that the Federal Aviation Administration had repeated warnings that 757s produced dangerous wake turbulence lies a harsh economic reality: The agency knew any landing restriction it imposed would mean flight reductions and further revenue losses for an industry that has gone $10 billion in the red since 1990.
After the Dec. 15 crash of a corporate jet in Santa Ana that flew into a 757's wake turbulence, killing all five people aboard, and a similar accident that killed eight people in December, 1992, some observers believe that the FAA may have chosen the industry's rail-thin profit margin over the public's safety margin.
The FAA took no action on the 757 turbulence issue--until recently--despite compelling evidence from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the United Kingdom's Civil Aviation Authority and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"You can make a safety recommendation, but then the economic factors come into play," said Leo Garodz, a former FAA manager who was among the first to bring the 757 wake turbulence problem to the agency's attention.
An FAA specialist in wake turbulence for 20 years, Garodz said his 1991 recommendations on the 757 were not made lightly, but he is sympathetic to the FAA's plight. "You're between the devil and the deep blue sea. On the one hand, you've got safety. On the other, you've got the industry."
The reason for the dilemma, critics say, is easy enough to illustrate:
On average, 74 Boeing 757s land daily at Los Angeles International Airport, mostly during peak travel hours. Other jets must remain at least three miles behind. If the FAA landing distance requirement was increased by two miles and made mandatory--as some suggested after the accidents--it would effectively push back all the planes bound for the airport. To the airlines, it could mean about 30 fewer jets could land during the peak travel day.
At an average of 200 passengers per plane, the lost revenue is significant.
Multiply that by the number of airports in the country and the millions of dollars in lost opportunity add up.
FAA spokesman Fred O'Donnell in Los Angeles acknowledged that the agency has twin missions: to keep the skies safe and "to foster the growth of civil aviation." But he said it was an oversimplification to characterize the 757 decision-making process as a matter of safety versus money. He said the evidence given to the FAA over the last two years, although compelling to many, was inconclusive to the FAA.
Since fall, 1991, at least two reports on the potential dangers of 757 wake turbulence have been presented to the FAA, in addition to anecdotal evidence gathered from pilots by NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System. One report, a study by Garodz and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researcher Kirk Clawson, concluded that the medium-size 757 appeared to generate the most powerful wake turbulence they had ever measured--more powerful than aircraft nearly four times its size. The researchers recommended that the FAA immediately require smaller planes to stay four miles behind 757s on final approach under all circumstances and that further testing be done.
Wake turbulence occurs when a jet speeds through the air, leaving an invisible, but potentially lethal trail of horizontal cyclones that spring out from each wingtip. Such turbulence can cause even mid-size jets to pitch violently and can toss around smaller aircraft like toys.
The most recent accident believed to have been linked to 757 wake turbulence claimed the lives of two executives of the In-N-Out burger chain when a twin-engine jet landing about two miles behind a 757 at John Wayne Airport went out of control.
Garodz said the landing distance recommendations "went over like a lead balloon" because "there always is pressure from the industry to close down separation distances."
In fact, Garodz said, when the FAA embarked on the study, which also called for testing the larger Boeing 767, it harbored hopes that the results would allow it to decrease the separation requirements for those two aircraft. So did United Airlines, which offered aircraft to use in the study.
"United Airlines believes the potential benefit of this scientific test--proving that airport capacity can be increased 5% to 10% by safely reducing the separation between planes--justifies its contribution of aircraft and crew members for this study," James M. Guyette, a United executive vice president, said at the time.
Garodz and Clawson also advised the FAA that the space requirement for the 767--six miles for smaller aircraft--not be reduced.