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Too many close calls on runways, report says

December 06, 2007|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

The rate of close calls between planes on the ground approached record highs in 2007 at Los Angeles International Airport and at other airports across the nation, a government report released Wednesday found.

The findings come despite much-touted efforts by the Federal Aviation Administration and airports to ensure that pilots and air traffic controllers follow federal rules that permit only one plane at a time on or near a runway.

LAX has been plagued by a series of close calls on runways in recent months. Some incidents have been relatively minor, such as when a pilot on a taxiway stops too close to a runway with another plane on it.

Others have been hair-raising -- including one that occurred Aug. 16, when two jets carrying 296 people came within 37 feet of each other.

Even more worrisome, researchers found the rate of the most serious types of close calls had not markedly improved from 2002 through 2006, suggesting "a high risk of a catastrophic runway collision occurring in the United States." The report also questioned whether the FAA's data on close calls was accurate, saying that the airline industry reports more of such incidents than does the FAA.

Among the nation's most crowded airports, LAX, which logged eight such incidents in fiscal 2007, which ran from Oct. 1, 2006 to Sept. 30, 2007, is unusual because its layout requires aircraft to cross four parallel active runways. Crossings happen about 900 times a day.

Airport officials have struggled for years to develop a politically palatable plan to modernize and improve safety at the crowded facility but have met resistance from airport neighbors. The airport soon will finish a $333-million project to further separate the two parallel runways on its south side and install a center taxiway.

The federal Government Accountability Office report is expected to heighten the debate in Los Angeles about a proposal to move farther apart the two parallel runways on the airport's north side -- a project supported by the FAA.

Airport officials are awaiting the results of a NASA study that will determine the best way to improve safety on the north airfield. It is not clear how much it would cost to reconfigure the runways if such a project were approved.

Nationwide, the report found, runway-safety gains achieved earlier this decade have been eroded by overworked controllers, a jump in flights to pre-9/11 levels and a lack of leadership by the FAA. The report, requested by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is the harshest indictment in years of the FAA's progress in addressing incidents in which aircraft violate safety zones around runways.

The agency began a publicized effort in 2000 to curb close calls on the ground, which are considered among the more serious threats to domestic aviation.

"American aviation is safe, but that doesn't mean it couldn't be better," said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) at a Washington news conference Wednesday to discuss the report's findings.

"The FAA has let us down -- they are failing to provide adequate levels of safety on our runways at our airports," he said.

Though researchers applauded FAA initiatives such as enhancing lighting and signs on airfields and providing additional training for pilots and controllers, they found the rate of runway safety violations in 2007 was nearly as high as it had been at its peak in 2001.

In a statement, the FAA said it had exceeded its goal of reducing the most serious close calls in 2007, adding that the number of such incidents has dropped 55% since 2001. The agency added that it was working with airport officials to identify measures to limit the incidents.

The union that represents the nation's 11,000 or so air traffic controllers said the report underscored the organization's repeated attempts to get the FAA to hire more controllers. A majority of controllers are expected to retire over the next decade.

"This report provides yet another credible, compelling and clear link between safety and controller fatigue, which is caused by staffing shortages and longer hours," said a statement by Patrick Forrey, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn.

The FAA agreed that it was facing staffing challenges and said it was focusing its hiring efforts at about 24 facilities where controllers usually work overtime.

To address the increasing rate of close calls, legislators said they expected the FAA to develop a new runway-safety plan. They criticized the agency for failing to update its 2002 plan, despite a policy requiring a new document every two to three years.

In addition to analyzing nationwide statistics, the report highlighted safety problems at individual airports. In the last eight years, LAX had the most close calls of the busiest commercial airports. It also posted the highest number of those considered the most severe.

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