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A Slip-Up Can Mean Disaster

June 07, 1998

The Federal Aviation Administration was right last week to order the retraining of 10,000 air traffic controllers by the end of the month. The action was triggered by a near disaster at New York's La Guardia Airport April 3. In that incident, a U.S. Airways jet ordered to abort a landing came within 20 to 40 feet of an Air Canada jet that was taking off.

That near collision is under investigation, but officials have said that the controller should have recognized the situation sooner and issued the order to abort the landing much earlier.

The retraining takes at least two hours and reiterates all safety procedures and instructions for airport approaches, landings and takeoffs.

There has also been an increase in so-called "operational errors" by controllers in which aircraft are allowed to enter a safety bubble of five miles of horizontal separation or 1,000 feet above or below an aircraft. But the size of the bubble also means that collisions are not necessarily imminent.

It should be noted that controllers sometimes blame FAA radar skips or glitches, and problems of that sort do occur. Air Force One, the president's jet, has twice disappeared from radar screens for brief moments in recent months.

There were 1,072 operational errors between January 1997 and May of this year. In one of those incidents, Air Force One flew within 2.36 nautical miles and 900 feet, vertically, of a commercial jet near Andrews Air Force Base.

And it appears that the sloppiness goes much further. Last November, the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Kenneth Mead, told Congress about a 54% increase in so-called "runway incursions" between 1993 and 1996 and another 12% increase during the first nine months of 1997. Runway incursions are any incident in which something strays onto an active runway--another aircraft or a ground vehicle, for example.

Finally, there's something else troubling about the La Guardia event. The airport's tower personnel failed to report the incident, and a complaint from one of the pilots got no further than an FAA regional office. Complaints from passengers got the FAA's attention. It's not an isolated lapse. On March 20, a DC-10 and a 737 departing Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport passed within 100 feet vertically and 300 feet horizontally of each other after their takeoffs. The FAA said that the flight crews failed to file a report later.

It ought to be clear now that a few folks other than controllers could use a refresher course or two. Pilots and ground crews have a big role to play in reducing errors, and in reporting them.

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