Runway Russian roulette

Ted W. Lieu represents California's 53rd Assembly District, which includes LAX. He is also the chairman of the California Assembly Aerospace Select Committee.

Being a passenger on a Southwest Airlines jet doing evasive maneuvers is not my idea of a good time.

We were landing at Los Angeles International Airport on a clear day in early 2006, and we were low enough that my view was partly blocked by a building with a big green Herbalife sign. All of a sudden, the plane veered sharply upward and the engines started roaring. I could hear the passenger next to me say, “Something is really wrong.” I thought, “Please God, don’t let me die in a plane crash.”

For what seemed like an eternity (it was probably less than three minutes), no one said anything. Then the pilot’s voice came over the public address system. He said he was very sorry but the runway had not been cleared in time. I have to wonder what would have happened if our attempted landing had taken place during a foggy morning or at night.


What is even more frightening is that my experience is not uncommon. According to the Los Angeles Times, LAX had eight runway “close calls” in fiscal year 2007 (October 2006 through September 2007). In a report released in early December, the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, concluded that U.S. air travelers face a “high risk of catastrophic runway collision.” And according to the report, since 2001, LAX has had the highest number of runway “incursions” of any major U.S. airport. In one incident in August 2007, two commercial planes carrying 296 passengers were separated by just 37 feet at LAX.

There are different theories as to why runway incursions happen at LAX. Air traffic controllers believe that incursions are a result of inadequate controller staffing. The FAA believes that they are a problem of runway configuration. As various groups with an interest in the airport debate the best long-term solution, too little gets done in the short term.

In the meantime, with each passing week, millions of passengers’ lives are being put at high risk. An interim solution exists, and the FAA must adopt it now.

The GAO report’s data provide the solution: We need to reduce flight volume and increase spacing between flights. The report notes that during fiscal year 2007, there were 370 runway incursions across the nation at airports with varying runway configurations and different numbers of air traffic controllers. That means factors in addition to runway geometry and controller fatigue would account for the current number of runway incursions. What is different between today and 30 years ago, when runways were safer? The obvious answer is the dramatic increase in flight volume.

During peak travel hours, landings and takeoffs are separated by about two minutes at LAX. Suppose that time was increased to five minutes. There would be many fewer incursions because an airplane would land and taxi to the gate before another airplane ever showed up on the horizon. If five minutes is deemed impracticably long in terms of scheduling flights, there is surely a time between five minutes and two minutes that would dramatically improve safety and meet most scheduling requirements.

If the FAA were to adjust the time between landings and takeoffs at heavily used airports such as LAX, it would have to divert flights to less-used regional airports and allow fewer flights during peak hours. There is precedence for such actions. Late last year, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announced plans to cap flights at New York City airports in order to reduce delays throughout the nation. Safety concerns are even more important than missed connections and late flights.

Would some passengers be inconvenienced because there would be, say, 24 round-trip flights between LAX and Oakland as compared with the 29 we have now? Yes. Would some airlines lose some profits over an interim period? Yes. But the alternative is unacceptable: We’re playing Russian roulette with the lives of passengers.