HOW SAFE IS LAX : IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA'S CROWDED SKIES, THE MOST DANGEROUS IN THE U. S., THERE'S PRACTICALLY NO MARGIN FOR ERROR

Kathleen Burton is the technology editor of Investor's Daily and a small-plane pilot.

AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER Keith Bell was just doing his job. Slumped in his chair, concentrating on the phosphorescent green blips crossing his radar screen, Bell was guiding five jetliners as they inched across his Nintendo-like universe of airspace, a rectangular chunk about 25 miles long and 15 miles wide. It was 7:08 p.m.

Suddenly Bell saw airliner No. 6. No one had handed off another jet to his sector. It was just there . "I saw a fast-moving target squawking a discrete transponder code and flying level at 9,000 feet," he says calmly. "It lacked the usual bright flash that normally signals a handoff. My first thought was, 'That's not supposed to be there.' It was directly in the path of a British Airways jumbo jet that was climbing after takeoff. Because of the speed and the transponder code, I knew the target was a jet.

" 'British Airways 282,' I said, 'turn left immediately heading zero-three-zero.' "

Telling it now, Bell is matter of fact except for the light emphasis on the word immediately.

"The pilot didn't say anything. He just did it. But turning a jet's like turning an aircraft carrier. It doesn't happen right away. It was close."

This close: On Feb. 13, 1989, 9,000 feet above Westminster, Calif., British Airways Flight 282, carrying 286 passengers and crew, came within 1.9 miles horizontally and zero feet vertically of an Ontario-bound American Airlines jet with 70 people on board--a hair's breadth away from a collision, about 15 seconds to impact.

Bell was cool then, and he is cool now. "That near miss," he says, "wasn't a big deal when it was happening. They never are. You just react. The whole thing was over in two minutes."

It was one of the closest calls of 1989. The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates crashes and selected near misses, concluded that it was caused by human error : A controller in El Toro had failed to properly notify Bell that the American jet was on its way. Such serious near mid-air collisions--NMACs (pronounced EN-macs)-- happened at least 32 times over the L.A. Basin last year. They happen so often here that Los Angeles International Airport and the Basin have had the dubious distinction of being No. 1 in the nation for near misses four years running.

Between 1986 and 1988, according to data from the Federal Aviation Administration, 57 serious near mid-air collisions involving commercial air carriers occurred within 40 nautical miles of LAX, compared with 29 each near Chicago's O'Hare, San Francisco International and the airports of metropolitan New York, all of which tied for second place. Three other L.A. Basin airports--John Wayne, Ontario and Burbank--were among the top 12 for near misses, ranking seventh, ninth and 12th, respectively. Along with LAX, they give the area the regional near-miss crown. The 1989 data put the Basin in first place again.

While near misses are an air-safety danger sign, they are also just that--misses, not hits. And if they represent flaws in the air-safety system, they also to some degree represent saves. But aviation safety expert Richard H. Wood of the USC Institute of Safety and Systems Management says that the difference between an accident and near-miss "incident" is "mostly a matter of luck."

In the region's most notorious air disaster, that luck ran out. On Aug. 31, 1986, an Aeromexico jet collided with a four-seater Piper Archer II and crashed into the town of Cerritos. Eighty-two people died--all the crew and passengers on both airplanes and 15 people on the ground. After an 11-month investigation, the NTSB concluded that "limitations" in the FAA's air-traffic-control system and safety regulations were to blame. The whole system, it said, was becoming inadequate for the increasingly crowded skies over Los Angeles.

Four years later, the FAA claims that changes made in air traffic control, airspace design and safety regulations are contributing to a downward trend nationally in NMACs. But in Los Angeles, pilots, controllers and even the NTSB are less sanguine. Things have changed, they say, but not enough. If anything, the skies are more congested, a hazardous mix of general aviation and commercial aircraft remains and the air-traffic-control system is still antiquated and overtaxed.

No one says that flying into or out of LAX and the other airports in the Basin is downright dangerous; instead, they worry about the margin of safety.

"We used to have room for error at LAX," says Richard Russell, a recently retired United Airlines captain and former regional safety coordinator for the Airline Pilots Assn., "but now that margin is zero. There's no room for error anymore, either for pilots or for air traffic controllers. We're just waiting for something drastic to happen." Again.

LOS ANGELES CONTROLLERS call it, with awe in their voices, the Downey Rush. Between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. seven nights a week, they slam-dunk as many as 75 jets an hour--one every 48 seconds--into LAX on the main approach pattern for westbound jets, a downward-sloping sky highway directly over downtown Downey.

There can be no doubt that the skies above the 2,100-square-mile L.A. Basin, from the Pacific Ocean to the San Bernardino Mountains, from Oxnard and the Tehachapis down to southern Orange County, are among the most crowded in the nation. Last year, at the 28 busiest Basin airports--including five major air-carrier airports, five military airfields and 18 small-plane airports--there were about 6 million takeoffs and landings. At LAX alone, the third-busiest airport in the United States (behind O'Hare and Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport), there were nearly 637,117 takeoffs and landings last year; about 15,000 are expected to be added to that total this year.

"What we deal with here is unlike anything in the world," says Jack Norris, the FAA's airspace safety specialist for the Western-Pacific Region. "It's unbelievably congested. (Basin) controllers average 23 planes an hour compared to Chicago and Atlanta controllers, who average 14 planes an hour."

The crowds of airplanes present their own hazard, but the more significant problem is the mix of the traffic. In Los Angeles County, there are 38,000 licensed small-plane pilots--more than in all of Europe--and 10,000 registered general-aviation airplanes. Their takeoffs and landings account for perhaps 25% of the Basin's air traffic.

Theoretically, the first line of defense against the crowds is the FAA's dividing the skies into airspace parcels, all with different rules and regulations. The object is to sort out the mix and to separate planes from one another.

At their simplest, airspace divisions create high-altitude superhighways, with planes going one direction required to be within certain altitudes and planes in another direction required to be in another section of air. But around airports, things are more complicated.

The granddaddy of regulated airspaces, Terminal Control Areas, surround the nation's busiest airports. TCAs are under the strictest control: Anyone flying within their bounds must have permission to enter from an air traffic controller and must stay in constant contact with the controller. A TCA shows up on a navigational chart as concentric circles; if its boundaries could be drawn in the air in three dimensions, it would look like an inverted wedding cake atop the airport runways.

At most of the nation's major airports, TCA boundaries are regular and recognizable on charts and in the sky. Pilots can avoid the airspaces or easily abide by their rules. But in the L.A. Basin, chockablock with smaller airports and their corresponding controlled airspaces, the charts show a jumble of overlaps and cutouts, awkward juxtapositions and abutments.

Those irregularities can be dangerous. Says Barry Schiff, a 26-year TWA captain and small-plane pilot: "With all the different shapes and heights of the LAX TCA, it's as if a sadist dropped the wedding cake on the floor and dared pilots to walk through the mess without getting their feet dirty."

According to Schiff, who began studying the L.A. Basin airspace on his own after the Cerritos crash, there are several especially hazardous bits of airspace design. For instance, there is a 13-nautical-mile stretch above the Hollywood Hills, where the LAX Terminal Control Area meets the controlled airspace surrounding Burbank Airport. Schiff says local pilots call it Kamikaze Alley. On the south side of the boundary, general-aviation pilots trying to avoid controlled airspace and jet traffic must be below 5,000 feet. As soon as they cross the boundary, they must be above 4,800 feet. The result is that many small planes cluster at the same altitude, 4,900 feet, with a clearance of only 100 feet from the jets overhead and below.

General-aviation pilots have to know where they are at all times to avoid penetrating LAX's regulated airspace. The Cerritos crash happened when the Piper Archer strayed into the Terminal Control Area without permission and without controller guidance.

One measure of just how hard it is to stay out of the LAX Terminal Control Area is the number of unauthorized incursions by small planes. In 1988, there were 107 such incursions; in 1989, there were 78. "They sometimes occur two or three times a day; some days there aren't any. Half are caught, half aren't," says Karl Grundmann, a controller and president of the L.A. TRACON division of the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn.

"Most TCA violations are inadvertent, caused either by ignorance or error," says Barry Schiff. "It doesn't have to happen often to be dangerous. To have another Cerritos, it just has to happen once."

WHEN AIRSPACE DIVISIONS and overloaded airways cause problems, it falls to the air-traffic-control system to solve them. And in the L.A. Basin, controllers have their hands full.

There are three kinds of air-traffic-control facilities watching over Southern California. From a yellow cinder-block building in Palmdale, Los Angeles Center, short for Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center, rules 177,000 square miles of air traffic at or above 13,000 feet--essentially, big jet traffic anywhere in the state south of San Francisco. Center controllers "hand off" airliners as they descend into the Basin or take handoffs as the jets gain altitude after departures.

The facility at the other end of most Center handoffs is a TRACON, short for Terminal Radar Control. There are four TRACONs in the Basin: L.A., Coast, Ontario and Burbank, each watching the airspace from the ground to 13,000 feet. The TRACONs are loosely associated with airports--for example, LAX arrivals and departures are the responsibility of L.A. TRACON; Coast handles Long Beach and John Wayne airports--but each TRACON also guides flights throughout the region, and they pass planes to each other as they steer them through the Basin. TRACON controllers also deal with the third component of air traffic control, the airport tower, which works within 5 miles of a runway.

Each facility has its adrenaline-filled moments, but most of the hair-trigger situations crop up at TRACONs, where controllers choreograph departures and approaches, the most compressed and complex portion of a flight. L.A. TRACON is a 30-x-60-foot darkened room. Inside, it is as hushed as a movie set during a shoot. The controllers talk in low, rushed voices into radio headsets. The only light comes from several clusters of radar scopes.

Controllers are focused on their individual complements of planes. Three concentrate on arrivals, three on departures and one on small-plane and other traffic just flying through. They work in eight-hour shifts with scattered 10-minute breaks, staring at the delicate, moving symbols--"targets"--and data blocks that show airplane, altitude, heading, speed. In a fast rat-tat-tat of voices, the controllers order pilots to make heading changes and speed reductions, making holes for intersecting layers of arriving and departing planes.

Sitting at a 6-foot-long flight-data desk along the wall, a flight coordinator feeds the controllers a blizzard of computer-generated, flight-progress strips--hard copies of flight plans of the planes headed LAX's way. He also watches weather information with an eagle eye.

Despite the calm scene inside L.A. TRACON, the hangar is awash in energy, and when traffic increases as it does during the Downey Rush, the adrenaline is palpable. Some controllers thrive on the thrill of directing feinting jets at 280 knots an hour.

"I love it. When it gets down and dirty, and I'm turning and burning 12 planes during Downey, I get on a high," says one. "It's addictive. It's an ego thing."

At L.A., the controllers are mostly men in their mid-20s to early 30s. About half have college degrees in math or science. They are, says their supervisor Richard Cox, "the cream of the crop. L.A. is the Top Gun of air traffic control."

"We are the best in the business," says controller Victor Ortiz. "We are the front line, and we make it work. It sounds macho, but it's true." It's an attitude, says controller Tony Vella, that "comes from knowing you can handle a difficult situation."

But the controllers do gripe about just how difficult their job can be. At L.A. TRACON, the computers are 17 years old, the two-way radios are 30 years old, and the software has bugs.

Ortiz and other worried controllers cite several nerve-racking phenomena caused by the inadequate capacity of their computers, which pick up data from jet transponders and radar echoes and translate it to the radar scope. One problem is "scattering"--when the computer, overloaded with signals during heavy traffic, abruptly wipes out information about a plane's altitude, air speed and position from the radar screen. Sometimes, the confused computer even switches information among planes. "Scattering happens several times a day," Ortiz says.

"Triple X-ing" is another problem caused by overloads. The computer wipes out an aircraft's altitude from the screen and displays three Xs instead. And then there's "coasting," reportedly a software problem. When this happens, the computer simply stops tracking airplanes, freezing on their last known speed, altitude and heading.

When the equipment goes down--daily, say the controllers, for as little as five seconds or, rarely, for as long as seven or eight minutes--the system reverts to the Dark Ages of traffic control. Controllers call pilots on the radio and ask them to verify their altitude, consulting the flight-progress strips or asking other controller facilities to slow down traffic.

"When the radar scope takes a dump, you gulp and keep going," says Vella. "But your heart stops beating for 30 or 40 seconds. It's like being on the freeway during rush hour, and all the cars lose their lights at once."

The radios cause problems, too. "The radios at TRACON are so bad and so full of static that I can tell when the lights come on at the airport because I hear it," says controller Karl Grundmann. "Sometimes that's about all I can hear."

"We've had radio-frequency problems for the past two years at Center," says Anthony Skirlick, a controller there. "The upshot is, sometimes we can't even talk to planes. We have to ask one captain to pass on a message to another captain. It's pretty embarrassing."

Says Norman Gann, a corporate pilot for Ray Stark Productions: "You always know when TRACON controllers are having equipment problems--when they keep asking your altitude. I really feel sorry for them. It happens all the time."

Even the NTSB has found controllers' work conditions unsatisfactory. In its May, 1989, report on the Westminster near miss--which focused on Coast TRACON--it criticized "inadequate controller staffing, excessive use of overtime . . . and inadequate size and poor physical condition of the operational quarters." The NTSB ultimately recommended that the FAA consider overhauling the entire system that oversees air traffic in the L.A. Basin.

L.A. TRACON manager Richard Cox acknowledges that there is room for improvement, but he emphasizes that the controllers are trained to deal with the problems. Controllers say that may be the most disheartening thing about the situation. "It's sad to say, but we've gotten used to working in the old style, like asking pilots their altitude," says Grundmann. "But it slows us down. There are so many planes now, we don't have time for equipment failures. It makes an already difficult situation a lot worse."

Another big worry at Basin TRACONs is a shortage of controllers. "My biggest concern is people," admits Cox. Slated for 57 fully qualified controllers, L.A. TRACON has only 28. As of April, Coast TRACON had only 70% of its authorized number of controllers, Burbank TRACON had 60% and L.A. Center had 73%.

According to the FAA, the hiring shortage is largely the result of controllers avoiding Southern California because of the high cost of living. Last year, the FAA approved a 20% pay raise at Basin TRACONs--from $54,000 to $65,000 for the most experienced controllers--in hopes of attracting more and better-qualified controllers. The increase was partly successful. Los Angeles TRACON is currently training four new controllers, with 13 more scheduled to come on board by the end of 1991, Cox says. But trainees take six to 18 months (depending on experience) to work up to speed, and 30% of them don't make the grade.

The current staff takes up the slack with overtime. Even controllers who don't want the extra money haven't always got a lot of choice. At L.A. TRACON, controllers say they often work six-day weeks. "The overtime wears you out," says Ortiz. " Dangerous is a loaded word, but I'd say it's potentially dangerous to work a lot of six-day weeks without a break. One of the first things the FAA asks in an incident is, 'How much overtime did the guy work?' That should tell you something."

While controllers await reinforcements, the pressure on the front line continues.

"If you don't love this job, it'll eat you alive," says Grundmann. Ortiz agrees. "As a controller, your whole career is always on the line. You're under constant scrutiny by supervisors, other controllers and the FAA. Also the press if you make a mistake. And we make mistakes all the time."

THE CERRITOS AIR DISASTER, the national near-miss report and the NTSB report on Coast TRACON have heightened awareness of air-safety problems in the L.A. Basin and called into question how well the Federal Aviation Administration is doing its job.

The FAA, established in 1956, oversees all aspects of American civil aviation, from airplane design and manufacturing to slicing and dicing airspace. In terms of safety, the U.S. air transport fatal acccident death rate--about 2 a year--makes the FAA look pretty good. Near misses in high numbers don't.

It's hard to determine the accuracy of NMAC data. The FAA records near misses only through voluntary reporting by the pilots involved. Many, perhaps most, near misses are never reported at all. In a 1988 report, the FAA's Office of Aviation Safety estimated that as many as 75% of near misses go unreported. In fact, because neither pilot reported the near miss that Keith Bell saw on his radar screen, the FAA has no official NMAC record of it.

In that case, neither pilot was aware of the impending collision. In other cases, because the FAA investigates near misses and sometimes assigns blame, pilots may simply never come forward. "Pilots are very goosey about telling the FAA about a near mid-air collision," admits Richard Russell. "Frankly, (they) would rather not call attention to a near-mid-air." Because the data is subjective and incomplete, it's difficult to determine what near misses mean in terms of risk--for instance, a sharp decrease or increase in reported NMACs from one year to the next doesn't necessarily mean that the risk of a mid-air collision has decreased or increased proportionately. That any NMACs are reported at all is a sign of weakness in a system specifically designed to keep planes separated.

For whatever it's worth, the total number of FAA-reported near misses is down. In 1989, 548 were reported nationwide; in 1988, the figure was 712. The Basin figures also show a decline.

The decreases may simply be due to a drop-off in reporting, but the FAA speculates that improvements made in aviation regulations and conditions since the Cerritos crash are partly responsible. The FAA recently installed improved radar equipment for L.A. TRACON, for example, and has redesigned Basin airspace by opening a new general aviation corridor through the TCA, tightening regulations around John Wayne Airport. It has policed the skies more vigilantly, levying heavy fines and harsh punishment when pilots violate Terminal Control Areas. Last July, it mandated the use of Mode C transponders--which automatically transmit a plane's altitude to air traffic controllers--on all aircraft flying near a TCA. This means that controllers have a way to better identify the blips on the radar screen even if the planes are not in direct contact with them. The FAA also has instituted a "keep 'em high" policy that keeps jets at 5,000 feet and above--and out of light-plane traffic--for as long as possible during approaches to major airports.

In March, FAA-approved, simplified general-aviation navigational charts for the L.A. Basin became available. Designed in 1986 by Barry Schiff, the charts clearly indicate the safest routes for general-aviation pilots to take through the airspace maze.

In addition, the FAA answers its critics by pointing to a handful of proposals on the drawing board to improve safety at LAX and in the L.A. Basin. Last October, the FAA decided to consolidate the TRACONs into a new $114-million regional traffic center at Miramar Naval Air Station near San Diego. Southern California TRACON, as it will be called, will guide air traffic in a 30,000-square-mile area and monitor about 4 million takeoffs and landings a year from ground level to 13,000 feet. Beginning in December, 1993, says the FAA, it will replace existing facilities in Los Angeles, Burbank, Ontario, El Toro and San Diego. "If we put all the TRACONs in one facility, we eliminate the imaginary barriers and provide a better flow of traffic," says Ken Knoben, assistant project manager.

Besides the regional TRACON, the FAA is planning to expand the capacity of TRACON computers to alleviate scattering, triple X-ing and coasting. It also plans to automate controller workstations, providing controllers with new computers and software that would enable them to call up flight plans instantly and track many more aircraft. The increased computer capacity is expected to be available at LAX sometime in the next year, but there is no firm timetable for installation of the workstations.

The FAA is also studying airspace redesign such as the controversial creation of a "Super TCA" in the L.A. Basin, raising and broadening the current Terminal Control Area. Enlarging the TCA would put more airspace under direct air traffic control. Proponents say that more control would equal safer skies. Opponents, mostly small-plane pilots unhappy about losing uncontrolled airspace, claim that a larger TCA would burden the already overtaxed controllers.

Other solutions approved by the FAA but not yet implemented include the requirement of a cockpit device that issues automated deviation commands to pilots when planes are on a collision course. They are expected to be widely used in commercial planes by 1993, says the FAA. Along the same lines, the FAA has ordered next-generation radar and new collision-prevention software for air traffic controllers.

"We're never satisfied," Jack Norris says of the FAA, "and we are always taking steps to make the L.A. Basin safe. Within whatever budgetary and personal limits, we are constantly trying to improve the systems."

THE QUESTION THAT REMAINS is whether the FAA is going far enough and fast enough in pursuit of air safety.

In its defense, the FAA has long said that federal budget shortfalls are responsible for delays in providing state-of-the-art equipment and the salaries that would help solve staffing problems. But last month, President Bush proposed a five-year plan that would help the FAA finally implement many of its improvements. The legislation--based on higher user fees for passengers and airlines, additional state and local money and increased use of the existing aviation trust fund--would raise allocations for aviation projects by 73%. The trust fund has been a sore point for the FAA. Created from user fees and meant to fund air-transportation- system improvements, it has been virtually frozen to offset the federal budget deficit.

FAA critics say money hasn't been the only problem. Barry Schiff complains that the agency just isn't very creative. His simplified navigation charts, for example, languished for three years before they were approved. "The FAA didn't go for it at first," Schiff says. "We had to lobby hard and get congressmen and senators involved before the FAA would even consider it."

On top of that, Schiff says, the FAA doesn't approach the problem with vision. "L.A. airspace is a cancerous sore," he charges, "and the FAA has just added Band-Aids. As a result, we've got a heap of Band-Aids all threatening to come off at once." Schiff applauds the current redesign studies; he's just sorry they didn't come before Cerritos.

Airline pilot Richard Russell says that without big-picture thinking, the FAA can actually create hazards. For example, in response to the problems of an understaffed and overtaxed air-traffic-control system, the FAA instituted a "visual separation" policy in the LAX TCA. On approaches to LAX, commercial pilots are responsible for maintaining the proper amount of space between their aircraft and other traffic by watching for it, rather than relying on the controllers and their radar screens.

It's a strategy that appreciably lightens controllers' workloads and so far has caused no "incidents," say its proponents. But Russell, and the pilots' union, claims it has further eroded the safety margin at LAX, formal incidents or not.

Last fall, Russell was approaching LAX after an all-night flight from Tokyo. "The L.A. TRACON controller says 'Do you see that traffic?' I say, 'Yes, I see him.' The controller then tells me to maintain visual separation. Suddenly, the other plane disappears into the haze and smog. I've lost it. I try to break in to tell that to the controller, but he's talking too fast. Finally I get on and say, 'I've lost him.' The controller fires back with 'Don't worry, we see him.'

" Don't worry ! With 400 passengers, I can't play who-knows-where-the-other-plane-is games."

Probably the biggest knock against the FAA is that too often it reacts to disasters rather than preventing them. And anything it decides to do seems to take forever. United pilot Jeff Sakuda says, "Changes only get put into place because of an accident or incident that happened years before. I'm not optimistic (about safety improving)." When the NTSB slapped the FAA's hand in its Coast TRACON report, it said: "deficiencies and problems have been documented and verified . . . throughout the past three years. . . . The FAA's failure to address and correct them contributed to (the NMAC above Westminster) in February, 1989." The Southern California TRACON, a recommendation the NTSB included in its report, will not be up and running until 1993, and, says Ken Knoben, it cannot expect to receive state-of-the-art equipment until 1998.

Even controller Karl Grundmann, who defends the system he works for, is impatient with the FAA. The newly installed radar system at L.A. TRACON, which replaced a system plagued with blind spots, was first requested by controllers in 1984. "It took us six years," Grundmann says. "From that you can infer that the FAA doesn't move very fast."

LIKE KARL GRUNDMANN, KEITH BELL defends the system he works for. He is properly proud of the save he made in February, 1989. He is proud of his $100 bonus and his letter of commendation ("Your timely and appropriate actions . . . in all likelihood avoided loss of life or serious injury to a great number of people"). But the letter and the bonus are not the point, he says. "The point is, it turned out OK."

The happy ending is what Bell likes to think about. It's not that he denies the risk. "Nothing is completely foolproof; there is the potential for something bad to happen at LAX." But confronting that potential doesn't make him uneasy. The Westminster NMAC was business as usual, a sign that the system works "almost all of the time."

"I didn't feel uneasy. . . . I didn't feel any emotion afterward," he remembers.

He will admit to one flicker of emotion: "The next day a passenger on the American jet read about it in the papers, and he called TRACON to thank me. That touched me; that got to me."

But sooner or later, for all his confidence, even Bell has to consider the alternative. "I reflected on it," he confesses, in his best unshakable air-traffic-controller voice. "And I thought, 'What if I hadn't seen it?' "

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