Concerned about a growing potential for midair collisions, especially over neighborhoods, the federal government is considering significant air traffic control changes at Long Beach Airport — a move opposed by some private pilots who say the proposals might create more problems than they solve.
The Federal Aviation Administration has proposed establishing so-called Class C airspace at Long Beach, which requires more communication with pilots and a higher level of monitoring by air traffic controllers than now exists. In addition, the proposal would increase by at least a third the area under air traffic control around the airport.
FAA officials say they are weighing the changes because of reports by airlines that collision warning systems in the cockpits of their planes — so-called TCAS devices — are being triggered more often during Long Beach flight operations.
If a midair collision occurred involving an airliner, scores of passengers could be killed and casualties could mount if the wreckage rains down on homes, office buildings, shopping centers or schools along flight paths.
"We crafted the proposal to balance an increase in safety and limiting the impact on general aviation pilots," said Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman. "It's not going to change air routes. It won't ban anyone from airspace, and it will not eliminate flight training areas."
FAA officials believe that of the 89 domestic airports that serve at least 1 million passengers, Long Beach is the only one on the United States mainland that does not have at least Class C airspace. Smaller airports, such as Monterey Peninsula, often have more controlled skies, FAA officials say.
In 2009, Long Beach had slightly more than 297,000 takeoffs and landings. Roughly 90% involved general aviation, such as private planes, law enforcement flights and charter services. The airport has two cargo operations and five airlines that handled about 3 million passengers last year.
Under Class C requirements, pilots must establish two-way communications with the tower before entering the airspace. Controllers keep aircraft separated, advise pilots about air traffic and provide safety alerts to aircraft flying under instrument flight rules and visual flight rules. There are also stricter separation requirements than other types of controlled airspace.
Long Beach now has Class D airspace within a 4.3-mile radius of the airport. Establishing radio contact with the tower is required but there are no mandatory safety alerts and controllers do not provide separation services for planes flying under visual flight rules.
The changes are now under study and could take at least 18 months to implement if the FAA decides to proceed with them.
"From an air traffic control perspective, the proposal is a good thing and will increase safety margins in the area," said Mike Foote, a local representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn. "Long Beach is pretty well-known as a TCAS black hole."
But at a public hearing held by the FAA last week in Long Beach, some private pilots opposed the changes, saying they are not necessary because the airport has been safe for years without the more stringent Class C requirements.
The proposal, they contended, would only complicate flying in the Los Angeles Basin, which already has some of the busiest and most controlled airspace in the nation. More time would have to be spent perusing charts in the cockpit and talking to air traffic control rather than looking out for other aircraft, they said.
There were further concerns that the altitude restrictions, communications requirements and boundaries under study would threaten the safety and attractiveness of a practice area around the Long Beach breakwater, which is used by flight schools from six local airports.
In addition, pilots who like to fly under visual flight rules and do not want to be in close contact with the tower could gravitate into less controlled flight corridors, congesting them and adding to the risk of collision.
"This is designed for the air carriers, not general aviation. They are not asking the airlines to do anything," said Al Pregler, a veteran air transport pilot and aerospace engineer. "This is just another nail in the coffin of general aviation."
At the hearing, much criticism was leveled at JetBlue Airways, which operates out of Long Beach. The airline has reported to the FAA that its pilots have experienced excessive rates of collision avoidance system warnings while landing and taking off at the airport.
Armed with FAA statistics, John S. Ringel, a captain for Continental Airlines and a member of a group that studies the region's airspace, challenged JetBlue's figures. He asserted that the rate of collision warnings is far lower than the company claims and that most of them were outside the boundaries of the FAA's proposed Class C airspace.
According to the FAA data, Ringel said, the only other airline to report collision warnings was Alaska, with one in a year.
A spokeswoman for JetBlue declined to comment on Ringel's assertions, referring all inquires to the FAA. Agency officials say reports of collision avoidance system warnings have come from airlines other than JetBlue.