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Close Calls on LAX Runways High Despite Attempts to Reduce Them

Times Staff Writer

Years of efforts to improve runway safety at Los Angeles International Airport have failed to reduce close calls between airplanes on its four busy runways, a Times review of federal records shows.

Millions of dollars have been spent to install signs and paint markings on the airfield to guide pilots as they navigate the closely spaced runways. Maps have been created for pilots to highlight danger spots.

Still, pilots and controllers at LAX continue to violate federal rules that allow only one plane on a runway at a time. Since May, six close calls have been reported.

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The head of the Federal Aviation Administration, saying the world’s fifth-busiest airport is running out of options, believes the best solution is to begin work “without delay” to reconfigure the two sets of parallel runways. The plan, which could cost up to $1.5 billion, has been stymied for years by opposition.

“It’s very hard to exaggerate the seriousness of the runway safety problem here,” said FAA Administrator Marion Blakey during a recent interview in the tower at LAX. “I don’t know of anything else we could do at LAX short of pushing the southern runway south and doing the same thing, frankly, on the north.”

About 80% of the close calls between aircraft at LAX occur on the busier south side after pilots land on the outer runway and use taxiways to cross the inner runway on their way to the terminals. Among the nation’s airports, LAX is unusual because airplanes cross active runways about 900 times a day.

A Times review of the 39 close calls since 2001, when aviation officials stepped up efforts to prevent them, shows that the rate has hovered around one incident per 100,000 takeoffs and landings.

FAA records also indicate that most of the incidents were attributed to miscommunication between pilots and controllers, distractions among flight crews and the airport’s layout.

LAX had the sixth-highest rate of near misses between aircraft among the nation’s 30 busiest commercial airports from Oct. 1, 2004, to Sept. 30. John Wayne Airport in Orange County and Long Beach Airport, which handle fewer large aircraft, had the second- and third-highest rates.

Nationwide, runway incursions have dropped 20% since their peak in 2001, but at LAX they have remained stubbornly consistent.

“This is a problem that’s always been there,” said Jim Holtsclaw, an aviation consultant who was in charge of the LAX tower from 1984 to 1988.

Since 2001, federal and local officials have reduced the severity of close calls at LAX. From 1997 to 2000, the airport recorded 13 serious near-crashes -- the most among the nation’s busiest airports. Six of the 39 incidents from 2001 to 2005 were also considered serious.

In most close calls at LAX, airplanes encroach into safety zones around runways or taxiways, but are still separated from other aircraft by thousands of feet.

The incidents are also relatively rare -- from Oct. 1, 2004, to Sept. 30, eight close calls occurred amid 653,855 takeoffs and landings.

But a few incidents have come harrowingly close to disaster.

As an Asiana pilot readied his jumbo jet to land at Los Angeles International on Aug. 19, 2004, he saw an aircraft pull onto the runway that he was approaching at 165 mph.

The pilot abruptly pulled back on the yoke, lifting the Boeing 747’s nose, and several seconds later his jet roared over a Southwest Boeing 737, clearing it by just 185 feet.

“That was close!” said an unidentified voice on LAX control tower cassette tapes obtained by The Times.

“We could have had one of the worst air disasters in this nation’s history right on your runway,” said Mark Rosenker, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. “The wonderful airmanship of the pilot, combined with a great deal of luck and, frankly, God watching over the people in both those airplanes, avoided a catastrophe.”

The last fatal accident at the airport occurred in 1991 when a controller cleared a USAir Boeing 737 to land behind a Skywest commuter plane that was positioned for takeoff. The crash killed 34 people.

The airport’s configuration has been a factor in many incursions. Typically, planes land on the outer runways and take off on the inner runways. But controllers sometimes switch this pattern to maximize use of the runways.

The two runways in each parallel set are close -- about 750 feet apart. “At LAX there’s not that much space between the runways,” said Capt. Denis Breslin, an American Airlines pilot, explaining that the short taxiways between runways give pilots little room to slow down after landing.

The city’s airport agency and the FAA started discussing moving the airport’s southernmost runway 55 feet closer to El Segundo in the late 1980s to make room for a center taxiway. Pilots would use the new taxiway to slow down before crossing the inner runway on their way to the terminal.

“This is not something that we have failed to focus on,” said Lydia Kennard, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, which operates LAX.

More than a decade after talks about moving the runway began, the city’s Airport Commission will consider awarding a contract to a builder Dec. 5, with a start date in January.

But the runway project has been ensnared in a lawsuit filed by communities near LAX. The suit claims that the environmental studies for the airport’s $11-billion modernization plan understate the effects of pollution, noise and traffic.

The city has been trying to negotiate a settlement for weeks.

Given the uncertainty of the runway project, aviation safety experts say the airport needs to upgrade radar systems, address cultural and language differences and prevent communications mix-ups.

Similar issues contributed to the worst aviation disaster in history, when 583 people were killed after two 747s collided on a foggy runway in Tenerife, Canary Islands, in 1977.

“If you fly from LAX, you are at an increased risk than if you are at other airports,” said Najmedin Meshkati, director of USC’s aviation safety program. “Some of these issues should have been addressed yesterday.”

A radar system at LAX designed to automatically alert controllers to potential collisions has been out of commission at critical moments.

In the Asiana incident last year, investigators said the system also failed to give controllers enough time to react. An NTSB analysis found if the Asiana pilot had waited to pull up until after the radar alerted controllers, the jet would “likely have struck” the Southwest plane.

The radar, known as AMASS, isn’t “as reliable and effective as we would like it to be,” said the NTSB’s Rosenker.

Federal officials hope that a new radar system, which will provide controllers a more detailed picture of the airfield, will work better. The airport is scheduled to get the $8-million technology next year.

LAX managers have also made an unusual proposal to the FAA to deal with language differences that can lead to misunderstandings between controllers and pilots. About half of the 80 airlines at LAX are foreign carriers.

In a memo to Mark McClardy, manager of the FAA’s airports division in Los Angeles, Sherry Avery, who manages the air traffic control tower at LAX, proposed renumbering the runways. They are currently numbered 24R and 24L on the north side and 25L and 25R on the south.

“There are many examples of human error and confusion over the left and right runways,” Avery wrote.

On the south side the L, or “left,” runway is the outside one, but on the north side it’s the inside runway. In the Asiana incident, the controller had just switched from the south side to the north side and told investigators he was confused when another controller told him the jet was “landing on the left.”

The numbering system also causes language interpretation problems for controllers, who deal with Asian pilots who sometimes have difficulty pronouncing the letter “L,” Avery wrote in the memo to McClardy.

“This fact is accentuated on the frequency and has caused frustration and confusion for pilots and controllers when a controller cannot determine if the pilot said ‘reft’ or ‘right,’ ” she wrote. Avery proposed changing the numbering system to Runways 23, 24, 25 and 26 -- a departure from standard practice.

The FAA also hopes to place an insert in navigational charts for LAX that warns pilots to control their speed after they land because the airport’s taxiways are short and the inner runways come up fast. Five of the six close calls since May were attributed to pilot error.

Dave Kurner, the FAA’s runway safety program manager for the Western region, is meeting with the chief pilots of the airlines that use LAX to discuss how to prevent close calls.

“To me, the critical thing is awareness and loss of casualness,” he said.

Kurner also said he’s renewing an emphasis on interviewing pilots to illuminate why they made mistakes.

The FAA has already found some interesting revelations.

A business-jet pilot told investigators that he crossed a runway on the north side Aug. 16 without permission from controllers because he was “distraught having friends that were aboard the aircraft that crashed in Greece,” records show.

A Cypriot Boeing 737 had crashed into a hillside two days earlier, killing all 121 aboard. The LAX incident wasn’t considered a close call, because there wasn’t another aircraft on the runway.

On FAA reports of recent safety violations at LAX, investigators marked “unknown” to many questions on forms used to catalog pilot errors.

More detailed discussions between investigators and flight crews about what causes close calls could help, pilots say, but they add that they are often overwhelmed with information in the cockpit.

“When we land, the pilot considers cleaning up the aircraft, getting the flaps in, turning off equipment, turning on equipment that needs to be on on the ground, getting the gate clear,” said Breslin, the American Airlines pilot. “All that stuff takes up time and energy, all the time keeping in mind: ‘Don’t run into another airplane.’ ”

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

Runway changes

The Los Angeles airport agency hopes to start moving the southernmost runway at LAX 55 feet in January. A proposed change for a north runway is not expected to occur in the near future.

Near misses

Here is a look at how often aircraft get too close to one another at LAX, based on the federal fiscal year ending Sept. 30:

*--* Ranking Total in U.S. Year Incursions Rate* by rate** 2001 9 1.15 6 2002 6 0.94 8 2003 9 1.43 4 2004 7 1.08 8 2005 8 1.22 6

*--*

* Per 100,000 takeoffs and landings ** Among the nation’s 30 busiest commercial airports

Sources: Federal Aviation Administration, Google Earth, DigitalGlobe, MDA EarthSat

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U.S. airports with the highest near miss rates in fiscal 2005

Airport: Rate*

1. Boston Logan International: 3.50

2. John Wayne (Orange County): 2.13

3. Long Beach: 1.71

4. Philadelphia International: 1.68

5. Newark Liberty International: 1.36

6. Los Angeles International: 1.22

7. John F. Kennedy International (New York): 1.11

8. McCarran International (Las Vegas): 0.99

9. Minneapolis-St. Paul International: 0.92

10. Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International: 0.77 and Charlotte (N.C.) Douglas International: 0.77


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