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Danger in the Skies

As concern about the crowding of the skies increases, the Federal Aviation Administration keeps assuring Americans that air travel is safe. But the ominous comments of the National Transportation Safety Board should elevate concern to alarm. The FAA and the airlines must take strong action immediately to reduce the dangerous bunching of commercial passenger flights into and out of the nation’s busiest airports during peak flying hours.

This will not be pleasant or convenient for the airlines or their customers, but confidence in the safety of the system must take precedence over convenience. Last year’s collision over Cerritos of a small private plane and an Aeromexico DC-9 should have been warning enough. The NTSB now has reported that near-misses aloft between airliners and other aircraft increased by 42% last year over 1985. There also has been a large increase of planes taxiing onto runways into the paths of other aircraft. This was the situation that lead to the world’s worst aircraft disaster, killing 581 in the Canary Islands in 1977.

The safety board is concerned that “the potential for a catastrophic accident” will increase during the summer as airlines add more flightsto accommodate vacationing passengers. That potential also exists during the late-year holiday season, when winter weather could add to the dangers of overcrowded skies.

Imagine the carnage and grief that would be caused by the collision of two fully loaded jumbo jets, including families off on vacation. The risk of that must be avoided, or reduced to some acceptable level.

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Not all near-misses are the direct result of controller error, but the NTSB noted that it will be years before air traffic controller staffing and experience return to the levels of 1981 when President Reagan fired 11,500 controllers for going on strike. As long as dozens of flights are scheduled in and out of the same airport at virtually the same time, the best of air traffic control systems will be overwhelmed. Passengers complain to the airlines about delays and the airlines pressure the FAA to shuttle aircraft in and out of busy hub airports as quickly as possible to keep up with schedules that often defy rationality.

Travel ads used to proclaim that getting there is half the fun. Today, getting there safely must be the paramount concern. The nation’s air travelers deserve a prompt and vigorous response from the Federal Aviation Agency to the safety board’s disturbing report.


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