S.D. Airport Rated 5th on Danger List : Pilots Call LAX Most Dangerous in Nation

Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles International Airport was rated the most dangerous in the country, and Lindbergh Field in San Diego named among the nation’s five least safe airports, according to a recent newspaper poll of more than 2,000 pilots.

The survey results were published in Monday’s editions of the Atlanta Constitution.

The Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Airport, built in 1974 on flat cattle grazing land, was rated as the nation’s safest because of its six long runways, one stretching to 11,388 feet, and sophisticated approach aids.

The newspaper, in February and March, polled 2,200 pilots who hold air transportation certificates, asking them to list in no particular order the five safest and five most dangerous major airports in the country. The paper said 1,360 pilots responded, with many adding written comments.

Los Angeles International Airport was rated as the most dangerous by the pilots because the potential for mid-air collisions is considered great. But they cautioned that it was tough to determine safety because individual workers can make all of the difference.


Rated as fifth worst was San Diego’s Lindbergh Field, which tied with Denver’s Stapleton Airport in the survey.

Other problem airports, according to the survey, were: National Airport outside Washington, LaGuardia Airport in New York and O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.

Among the safest, the pilots said, were the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Airport, which is on flat plains equidistant from the two cities; Hartsfield-Atlanta International Airport; Dulles International Airport outside Washington and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Chicago’s O’Hare, rated one of the worst, was also rated one of the best in the newspaper survey. The nation’s second-busiest behind Atlanta, O’Hare received criticism for the heavy air traffic, but it also received praise for its controllers’ ability to deal well with the combined pressures of heavy traffic and winter storms.

Heavy Air Traffic

Although the pilots said it was a tricky task to rate one airport against another, more than a third of the respondents said LAX is an undesirable place to fly into because of the heavy air traffic over the Los Angeles Basin.

“Any airport that mixes light aircraft and commercial jet aircraft is less safe in direct proportion to the number of light aircraft using the facility,” one pilot wrote. “Light aircraft are difficult to see and often do not show up on air traffic-control radar.”

The rating drew rebuttals from the Los Angeles Department of Airports, the Federal Aviation Administration, general-aviation interest groups and pilot groups, who all said that LAX is no more dangerous than any other airport in the United States.

“LAX is taking a bum rap over a hysteria that has developed in recent years (over reported near-collisions),” said jetliner pilot Barry Schiff, who is also a spokesman for general-aviation interests. “I think the facts really do not justify the conclusion . . . that there is so much general aviation over L.A.”

Lindbergh Field was the smallest airport in terms of traffic to make either list. One pilot said the steep approach over Balboa Park and downtown San Diego is like “landing in the bottom of a shoe box.”

The mountains to the east force pilots to make a steep landing on a relatively short runway, said Dick Russell, a United Airlines pilot and area safety coordinator for the Air Line Pilots Assn. (ALPA) chapter in Los Angeles. The runway measures 9,400 feet, but angling in over the man-made and natural obstacles effectively shortens that by 1,800 feet, Russell said.

Upset About Travel Center

Also, Russell said, pilots are upset about the recent construction of the six-story Laurel Travel Center at 1025 W. Laurel Street, just 710 feet from the start of the Lindbergh runway. The building is so close to the runway that the landing gear of a 747 could catch and flip the plane over if it were descending at the minimally approved angle, ALPA calculations have shown.

Those calculations were included in a seven-page letter sent by the pilots’ association in January to the FAA to complain about the travel center, which was approved by the federal agency in 1984 and opened for business in 1986. Most of the structure is used as a parking garage.

The associaton’s letter demanded to know why the FAA didn’t identify the building as an airport hazard and request a response from the pilots before approving construction. It also offered calculations to show that an L-1011 would clear the garage by only 1.8 feet and a DC-10 by a mere 3.8 feet.

The FAA has promised a response to the ALPA letter. Meanwhile, Louis Wolfsheimer, vice chairman of the San Diego Unified Port District, which has jurisdiction over Lindbergh Field, on Monday agreed that something had to be done to tear down at least part of the building.

“One way or another, the feds or the city or the port or all of us together are going to have to do something about that,” Wolfsheimer said. “Whether we have to condemn it or make a deal to chop two, three, four floors off, we’re going to have to do it.

“It’s an accident waiting to happen, in my opinion,” he said.

Need New Airport

Wolfsheimer also said Monday that he is not surprised that the latest survey placed Lindbergh Field among the most dangerous airports in the country.

“I’ve said we need a new airport. That doesn’t make it happen overnight. Soon, Harbor Drive is going to be bumper to bumper,” Wolfsheimer said.

“The whole thing is going to break down with another 3 million to 4 million passengers coming in,” Wolfsheimer said. “We have 10 million passengers now. We’re going to get 12 million by 1990 and 14 million to 15 million by 1995.”

Even with the poor ranking in the survey, Russell stressed that flying into LAX or Lindbergh isn’t a hazard.

“If it were unsafe, we surely wouldn’t be out there flying,” Russell said Monday. “I would be the first one to refuse if I thought for one minute that it was unsafe doing it.”

He said LAX and Lindbergh were rapped in the survey, in part, because of the sheer volume of air traffic in Southern California.

For instance, a third of all the nation’s air traffic--as well as a third of the near mid-air collisions--occur in Southern California, Russell said. About 25% of all the pilots certified by the FAA live between Santa Barbara and the Mexican border, and 7,000 general aviation craft are concentrated in that area, he said.