Two planes flew dangerously close to each other at Los Angeles International Airport on Friday after an air traffic controller directed three aircraft to use the same runway at the same time, officials said Wednesday.
Federal aviation officials will investigate the incident, and then the FAA will classify it as to severity. Officials attributed the incident to human error on the part of the controller.
“We’re human beings and we do make mistakes,” said Bob Marks, vice president for the regional office of the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn., who added that the incident involved a veteran controller who is set to retire this year.
The incident was eerily similar to a near crash at the airport in August 2004 and the February 1991 runway collision that killed 35 people. It also comes at a time when the airport is trying to reduce the number of “runway incursions.”
Friday’s incident began a few minutes before 11:30 p.m. when a Southwest Airlines jet that was about to land on the airport’s northernmost runway was diverted by an air traffic controller to a nearby runway.
Moments later, the controller told a regional SkyWest plane that it could cross the same runway as it taxied to the terminal. He also told an arriving Air Canada jet that it could cross the far end of the runway in the Southwest flight’s path.
The SkyWest aircraft was making its way toward the runway and stopped short when its pilot saw the Southwest jet approaching. The Southwest aircraft flew within about 275 feet of the SkyWest plane, according to the initial investigative report, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said.
As the Southwest jet touched down, the Air Canada plane crossed its path at the far end of the runway on its way to the terminal. Seeing the Air Canada plane, the Southwest pilot slowed and turned onto a taxiway, never getting closer than 5,600 feet to the other aircraft, Brown said.
The FAA has not determined what led the controller to switch the Southwest aircraft to the other runway as it prepared to land.
But typically, Marks said, controllers make such decisions in order to use runways more efficiently.
The incident marked the first such near miss of 2006. Officials said it pointed to the need to rework the runway configurations at LAX, which has had one of the worst records for runway safety violations in the nation in recent years.
Last year, the airport had five near-miss incidents. It had seven in 2004, nine in 2003, six in 2002 and nine in 2001.
“We’ve worked very closely with the city to identify what we can do to improve runway safety at LAX,” Brown said. “Our primary focus is on reducing all runway incursions. We take them all seriously because we see them as precursors to accidents, and our main goal is to prevent runway collisions.”
Although the controllers’ union has complained in the past that understaffing can lead overworked controllers to make more mistakes, Marks said staffing did not appear to be a contributing factor on Friday. He estimated that four controllers were on duty in the control tower, the usual number for that hour of the night.
To improve safety, LAX and FAA officials have for decades discussed moving the airport’s southernmost runway 55 feet closer to El Segundo to make room for a center taxiway.
Arriving aircraft would use the new taxiway to reduce speed before crossing the inner runway on their way to the terminal.
The effort was delayed for years by a lawsuit from neighboring cities. But the suit was recently dropped, allowing LAX officials to push forward with a modernization plan.
Najmedin Meshkati, director of USC’s aviation safety program, said the incident shows that plans to make physical improvements to the airport, such as reconfiguring the runways, may not be enough to improve its safety record. He said that in addition to the runway configuration, LAX officials need to consider visibility issues and using newer technology.
“I think it could help, but I think they are trying to fix a wrong with a quick fix,” Meshkati said. “They are basically missing the boat. They need to look at all these contributing factors.”