Concerns Linger at LAX Months After Crash : Safety: Investigation of accident that killed 34 has widened to FAA’s management of air traffic at nation’s third-busiest airport.
Since last February’s disastrous runway collision at Los Angeles International Airport, officials have reduced control tower glare that was a source of complaints among air traffic controllers.
But a faulty ground radar system still has not been replaced. There have been lengthy delays in assigning assistants to help the controllers at the third-busiest airport in the nation. And LAX controllers continue to deviate from standard procedures followed at most other major airports.
Concerns about these issues--some of them longstanding complaints by pilots and controllers--have been sharpened in the months following the Feb. 1 crash that killed 34 people.
“LAX is among the worst airports in the country,” said Thomas J. Kraemer, a veteran pilot who is chairman of the Air Line Pilot Assn.'s air traffic control committee. “I think the management is very lax there.”
Several of the concerns about the airport will be addressed when the National Transportation Safety Board issues its final report on the causes of the crash, probably within the next few weeks.
Much of the blame for the accident is expected to fall on Robin Lee Wascher, the 38-year-old air traffic controller who has acknowledged publicly that she mistakenly gave a USAir jetliner permission to land on a runway where she had just positioned a SkyWest commuter plane for takeoff.
But major air crashes usually result from a combination of factors. And The Times has learned that NTSB investigators have been looking beyond Wascher to the FAA’s management of the entire air traffic control operation around LAX.
For years, professional airline pilots have expressed safety concerns about flying planes in and out of LAX.
One of them is David Kelly, co-pilot of the USAir jetliner that collided with a SkyWest commuter plane in February’s crash.
Another was the jetliner’s pilot, Capt. Colin F. Shaw, who died in the crash.
“Shaw called me often; his one complaint was Los Angeles,” Kraemer said. Shaw’s complaint--echoed by other pilots, including Kelly--was that FAA air traffic controllers at the LAX tower often deviated from normal landing procedures used at other airports.
Some of these deviations--although not the ones mentioned by Shaw and Kelly--have earned the airport a negative red star rating from the International Federation of Airline Pilots, a professional association that represents many of the world’s commercial airline pilots.
On the other hand, Richard Lien, the Federal Aviation Administration’s regional air control chief, staunchly defends the overall handling of airplane traffic at LAX “as one of the best . . . in the world.” However, he said, he has some concerns about the airport’s control system in the aftermath of the runway crash.
One question raised by the NTSB was why the tower manager, Leonard Mobley, has failed to fill assistant controller positions authorized by the FAA in 1988.
Although these positions are staffed by fully qualified controllers on a regular basis at most other major airports, they are infrequently filled at LAX, Mobley said.
No assistants were on duty on the night of the February crash, and the NTSB has suggested that an assistant might have helped Wascher keep track of the commuter plane.
Mobley said he was too short-handed to staff all the authorized positions all the time. Besides, he said, controllers are often uncomfortable with the prospect of other controllers, serving as assistants, looking over their shoulders.
Lien said the staffing decision was Mobley’s, based on his style of management.
“His perception was that the local controller would not be comfortable with someone else doing some of his work,” Lien said. “His decision was to allow a slow process in transitioning to when they would staff that position.”
Asked whether he would accelerate that process, Lien said only that he had asked management “to take a very serious look” at doing so.
“Controllers like to think they can do it all without any help,” said a controller who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But once we tried it (after the accident), we found that working with the assistants . . . makes the job easier.”
Mobley declined to comment on any issues related to the accident, citing the ongoing investigation.
At most FAA towers, controllers fill out small strips of paper with basic information about each flight as the planes come within the jurisdiction of the facility. As responsibility for a plane passes from controller to controller with the movement of the aircraft, the strip is passed from controller to controller. This standard procedure follows directives from the FAA.
But at LAX, some controllers--"ground controllers,” who direct planes along the taxiways--are skipped in the strip-passing process. The strips hopscotch over the ground controllers and go directly from controllers who assign initial departure clearances to “local controllers” such as Wascher who guide takeoffs and landings.
The NTSB has questioned whether this hopscotching maneuver might have contributed to Wascher’s confusion before the crash, but Mobley, Wascher’s supervisor, said he did not think so.
Mobley told an NTSB hearing in May that because of the workload on LAX’s ground controllers they simply do not have time to handle the strips. When they tried handling them, he said, a lot of the strips “ended up on the floor.”
The controller who asked not to be identified said that while having everyone handle the strips improved controllers’ ability to track airplanes, it created a different sort of chaos.
“The problem is the physical layout of the tower,” the controller said. “People would be running all over the place. . . .”
Lien, who is Mobley’s boss, said his office is studying the strip-handling procedure to see if changes are needed. But, like Mobley, he expressed doubt that skipping the ground controller had anything to do with the crash.
Another issue is the airport’s 20-year-old ground radar system, which was malfunctioning at the time of the crash and which some experts say might have helped Wascher keep track of the plane on the runway.
“It’s had failures, more failures and more failures,” said Jim Lougheed, the FAA’s regional manager for the installation and maintenance of equipment.
Problems with the system date back at least 10 years. The problems were exacerbated in 1986 when the FAA, for safety reasons, ordered that the radar be turned on seven days a week between sunset and sunrise. The increased use put added strain on the aging system, causing more breakdowns. Repairs are difficult because the equipment is unique and spare parts are scarce.
A few weeks before the crash, a local air traffic controllers association official filed a complaint about the system with the FAA. And Wascher told investigators the ground radar had not been functioning normally for months. She said that while it is a “crummy” system, she used it when it was working because it was better than nothing.
The FAA is developing a new generation of ground radar that is expected to work much better, but the system has problems of its own. The prototype being tested at an airport in Pittsburgh, Pa., features a high-speed antenna which spins so fast that it has been torn apart by centrifugal force.
The FAA says that this defect is being corrected and Lein said the new system should be in place at LAX sometime next year.
During her interviews with NTSB investigators, Wascher also complained about glare from light standards that were positioned to illuminate the ramp areas around LAX’s Terminal Two. She said this glare made it especially difficult to see planes in the area where she lost track of the commuter plane involved in the crash.
Records show that several other controllers had complained about the glare before the accident.
“There’s always been a glare problem,” said the controller who spoke anonymously. “I’ve told them about it. Everyone’s told them about it. I’m sure Mobley was told. . . .”
When NTSB investigators asked Mobley, the tower supervisor, he replied, “At no time, in no place, did anyone say to me . . . that there were glare problems.”
In fact, Mobley said, he did not realize his controllers were having a problem with glare until he read newspaper accounts following the accident. He said he immediately took corrective action and ultimately, 75% of the ramp lighting fixtures were readjusted.
Mobley’s failure to learn of the problem until it was aired by the news media has underscored questions about the quality of communication between controllers and FAA management, along with questions about how problems at LAX are solved.
Lein said some unsettling questions are raised by the controllers’ charges that they reported the glare problems, and by Mobley’s insistance that he never heard about them. “If, in fact, we had problems and they weren’t solved, I have a concern,” Lien said.
Pilots say that they have concerns about LAX that were not even raised during April’s NTSB hearings.
Airliners must approach the airport through what aviation officials agree is the most congested airspace in the world. The mountains and the ocean crowd in around the Los Angeles Basin, and there is nowhere else where so much commercial, military and general aviation traffic is crammed into such a confined space.
“You’ve got 15,000 airplanes based in the greater Los Angeles area,” said Richard Russell, a recently retired airline pilot and safety expert for the Air Line Pilots Assn.
“If you make a box running 70 miles east and west from Los Angeles and 30 miles north and south, you’ve got 111 airports in there, with a total of 29 control towers,” Russell said. “There are only 31 control towers in the states of Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri all together. . . .
“With all that traffic here, you’re just waiting for a snafu to happen.”
In an effort to avoid midair collisions like the one between a private plane and an Aeromexico jetliner over Cerritos on Aug. 31, 1986, that claimed 82 lives, the FAA has divided the airspace over the Los Angeles area into an intricate pattern.
This pattern includes control zones, transition areas, terminal control areas, prohibited areas, military operations areas, traffic alert areas, airport radar service areas and even a few spots without any restrictions.
“The airspace architecture in the Los Angeles Basin is so complex that it requires damned near an academician to understand it,” said veteran airline pilot Barry Schiff, a safety consultant with the Airplane Owners and Pilots Assn.
“General aviation pilots often don’t understand it very well and they often trespass in areas where they shouldn’t be,” Schiff said. “That kind of hazard is greater here in the Los Angeles area than probably anywhere else in the world.”
Further complicating the picture are noise-abatement procedures dictated by local communities that sometimes force pilots to fly approach and departure patterns--approved by the FAA--that some pilots consider unsafe.
Because of these procedures, pilots are required to approach LAX late at night from the west--out over the ocean, instead of over residential communities east of the airport--a pattern that earned it the red star rating by the International Federation of Airline Pilots.
The rating--which is advisory only--is a warning that the group believes an airport has a significant safety problem.
According to Russell, this nighttime approach from over Santa Monica Bay is dangerous for the following reasons:
* While landings are from the west, takeoffs are still from the east. Instead of a steady flow of traffic in one direction, you have two flows of traffic approaching each other head-on.
* Fog banks often form along the coastline, blinding pilots as they are about to touch down.
* Onshore breezes often prevail at night, forcing planes to land with a slight tail wind instead of the safer head winds that pilots prefer.
While the FAA says that its careful control of traffic around the airport makes the nighttime patterns safe, the IFAP disagrees.
Most of the planes landing at LAX come in the other way--from the east, over Inglewood--but they, too, have special problems.
Pilots approaching LAX’s four parallel runways from the east say that they are often instructed to line up with one of them, only to be switched at the last moment to another--a deviation from normal landing procedures at most major airports.
The ALPA’s Kraemer said that at the critical time of final approach, a pilot is busy enough with all the other details of executing a safe landing without having to swerve and line up with a new runway.
Shaw, the captain of the USAir jetliner involved in February’s crash, had spoken of the problem, Kraemer said. “He said they were continually changing runways” and he complained that there is “too much radio traffic” as planes approach LAX, Kraemer said.
Kelly, Shaw’s co-pilot, testified during April’s hearings that Wascher had failed to answer Shaw’s first radioed request for permission to land. Kelly said that while this lack of response was not that unusual for LAX, given the number of planes the controllers handle, it underlined the LAX tower’s reputation for doing things differently.
The FAA’s Lien defended the runway switches, saying that it “sometimes expedites the movement of traffic to sidestep over to another runway. . . .” However, he said that “if it’s a problem to them (the pilots), then it’s a problem to us, and we are looking at it.”
Al Pregler, a veteran airline pilot who often lands at LAX, says that there’s another pilot concern that arises after planes touch down.
Planes often must pause between runways on their way to passenger terminals. These pauses take place on taxiways so short that jumbo jets--like the Boeing 747--virtually fill the space between the runways.
“The runways and taxiways were designed years ago, when planes were smaller,” Pregler said.
“Sometimes, when you’re waiting there and planes are taking off, their wingtips pass within a few feet of you,” he said. “If one of them lost an engine and swerved, . . . it would be like Tenerife all over again.”
Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, is where two jumbo jets collided on a runway in history’s deadliest airline accident.
Concerns About LAX
Here are some of the complaints that pilots and others have voiced about Los Angeles International Airport, the nation’s third busiest:
* CONTROL PROCEDURES: Some pilots complain that LAX controllers often deviate from standard procedures used at other airports, switching runways at the last moment, permitting planes to take off and land in opposite directions and holding waiting planes dangerously close to active runways.
* MANAGEMENT: Some controllers say that management failed to staff assistant controller positions authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to ease controllers’ workloads and failed to respond promptly to reports of glare problems that obscured controllers’ views. They also complain about the quality of communication between controllers and FAA management.
* EQUIPMENT: There are complaints that a 20-year-old ground radar system malfunctions repeatedly, making it more difficult for controllers to keep track of planes on ramps, taxiways and runways.
* TRAFFIC: There is continuing concern about the threat of midair collisions around LAX, which sits in the middle of the most congested airspace in the world. Attempts to lessen this hazard have led to the creation of a complex pattern of varying types of airspace. This pattern is so complicated that it confuses some pilots, increasing the hazard it is intended to reduce.