An arriving Asiana Airlines jumbo jet narrowly missed a departing Southwest Airlines flight at Los Angeles International Airport last month after a controller mix-up that apparently placed both planes on the same runway, federal authorities confirmed Tuesday.
A captain aboard the Asiana Boeing 747-400, which was arriving from Inchon, South Korea, aborted the landing Aug. 19 and came within several hundred feet of a Southwest jet headed to Albuquerque, according to a report obtained by The Times.
The incident eerily resembles a 1991 accident on the same runway, in which 33 people died after a controller cleared a USAir jet to land on a runway where a commuter plane was waiting to take off.
That crash occurred at night, whereas last month's incident was at 2:55 p.m. in clear weather.
Confirmation came the same day the Federal Aviation Administration held a news conference in Washington to announce that near misses on the nation's runways are declining. At the event, officials said there had been no serious incidents involving commercial jets this year. An agency spokeswoman later explained that the LAX incident was still under investigation and had not been officially added to the statistics.
Nationally, the FAA reported a 20% drop in all runway safety incidents in federal fiscal years 2000 through 2003, and serious near misses declined by more than 50%. Serious incidents involving two jets declined even more markedly, from 15 in 2000 to two in 2003.
In the Asiana incident, initial reports from the control tower at LAX estimated that the jet flew within 200 feet of the Southwest aircraft, but just how close the planes ever were to each other is still under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.
"It's still too damned close," said a high-ranking FAA official who requested anonymity.
The incident is the closest call at the world's fifth-busiest airport in at least four years. The facility led the nation in near misses from 2000 to 2003, according to the FAA report released Tuesday.
At LAX, controllers orchestrate a complex choreography involving nearly 2,000 landings and takeoffs a day. The airport has two sets of parallel runways, one on the north side and the other on the south side.
The NTSB has obtained the black box recorders from the Southwest plane and has interviewed the captain and first officer. Investigators have requested a statement from the Asiana captain.
They are also examining radar data and recordings from the tower, and interviews with the controllers are being scheduled.
The incident followed a shift change in the tower. A controller told a colleague that the Asiana jet had been cleared to land on the inner runway on the airport's north side, according to interviews and records. But the first thing the second controller did was to clear the Southwest pilot to take off from the same runway.
The Southwest jet taxied into position and waited at the end of the runway. When the Asiana jet's captain was about a mile away from the airport, he saw the Southwest plane and took action to avoid it.
Seconds later, a ground radar system at LAX alerted the controller, who canceled the Southwest aircraft's takeoff clearance and told the Asiana pilot to "go around," records show. The 747 flew within several hundred feet of the Southwest jet about 10 seconds after the ground radar went off, according to a report.
The incident was initially considered so serious that the FAA classified it as a "Category A" near miss, or a runway incident that requires "extreme action to narrowly avoid a collision," but the incident will not be finally classified until after the NTSB investigation, sources said.
Controllers at LAX blamed the near miss on antiquated radar systems and understaffing during a busy Friday-afternoon rush, when scores of jets approach the airport and controllers must use all four runways for arriving aircraft. Controllers typically use two inner runways for takeoffs and two outer runways for landings.
"Either way, what happened that day ... was not optimal for aviation safety," said Mike Foote, an air traffic controller at LAX. But Foote said the ground radar "functioned as advertised."
That system, known as AMASS for Airport Movement Area Safety System, may become an issue in the probe of the incident. The FAA has relied on the new ground radar, in place at LAX and several dozen other busy airports nationwide, to warn controllers when planes are on a collision course.
But safety board experts, who favor a system in the cockpit that directly warns pilots, have questioned whether AMASS gives a timely warning. In computer simulations, some alerts have come only eight to 11 seconds before a collision would have occurred -- not enough time for controllers to figure out what is happening and warn pilots, and for pilots to then react.
The Aug. 19 incident cast a pall over efforts by local and federal officials to make LAX safer. During the 2003 federal fiscal year, LAX recorded nine runway incidents. But none were classified as Category A or Category B, the two most serious designations.
In the current federal fiscal year, LAX had six incidents before Aug. 19, said FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown. All were in the two lower-risk categories, in which there is ample time to avoid a collision or little chance that one will occur. The federal fiscal year started Oct. 1, 2003, and ends Sept. 30.
The statistics show marked improvement from the poor runway safety records posted by LAX in the last decade. From 1997 to 2000, the airport recorded 13 serious near crashes -- the most of the nation's busiest airports. The number of incidents has fallen after an effort to educate pilots about the orientation of the airport's runways.
"We are concerned about every incursion -- that's why we investigate them," Brown said. "But we've made incredible progress at LAX in reducing the serious incursions."
Times staff writer Eric Malnic contributed to this report.