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Accidents Waiting to Happen? : LAX has more problems than just one air controller’s tragic mistake

When federal investigators issue their final report on the causes of last February’s fiery runway collision at Los Angeles International Airport, public attention will likely focus on the air traffic controller who directed two planes onto the same runway. But the matter of individual culpability should not overshadow the larger and more important issue: safety at LAX, the nation’s third-busiest airport.

Seven months after the collision between a USAir jetliner and a Sky West commuter plane that killed 34 people, a number of disturbing safety problems persist at LAX. They include a faulty ground radar system, lengthy delays in assigning assistants to help air traffic controllers and complicated takeoff and landing practices that deviate from standard procedures at most other airports.

So serious are the concerns that the National Transportation Safety Board expanded its inquiry into the Feb. 1 collision to examine the management of the entire air traffic control operation at LAX.

Air travel is still considered the safest form of transportation. But the deregulation of the commercial aviation industry since 1978 has put unprecedented demands on controllers by allowing airlines to have more planes flying.

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Meanwhile, the federal government’s air traffic control system, too often overworked and understaffed, hasn’t kept pace with corresponding increases in air traffic. Congressional hearings after the LAX accident, for example, revealed that there are 20% fewer air traffic controllers doing 50% more work than they did in 1981, the year President Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controllers union.

Apparently, the staffing problem at LAX was serious enough to cause Federal Aviation Administration officials to recommend, more than two years ago, that assistant controllers be assigned to the LAX tower during peak hours to help manage air traffic.

Adding to the stress is a deficient ground radar system that is supposed to help tower personnel regulate plane traffic between the runways and terminal buildings but apparently breaks down regularly. A new generation of ground radar isn’t expected to be ready for at least two years.

In addition to problems with the ground radar, some pilots complain that FAA-approved noise abatement procedures imposed by communities compromise safety by sometimes forcing them to fly approach and departure patterns at night from the west, over the ocean, instead of over residential areas east of the airport.

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When the federal report on the February tragedy is released, the FAA should act immediately to implement recommended changes.

Airport safety shouldn’t be something that waits for tragedy.


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