In the air and on the ground, reports of near collisions are rising. FAA attributes increase to better reporting; others say skies are more crowded and point to fewer controllers

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As passengers and pilots see it, some encounters over the last year have been too close for comfort. Consider these recent examples:

On Mar. 31, the captain of a Northwest Airlines jumbo jet taking off from Minneapolis, managed to get in the air and raise the plane's landing gear just in time to clear, by a 100 feet, another DC-10 from his own company that had been directed to cross the runway.

On a Sunday afternoon in late June, the pilot of an American Airlines 727 suddenly dipped the plane sharply over Lake Michigan to avoid hitting a twin-engine private plane flying 50 feet away.

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On Sept. 24, an Eastern jet aborted a takeoff at Washington's National Airport and rolled to a halt just short of the Potomac River when the pilot spotted a helicopter that had been cleared to cross his departure path.

Reports of near collisions in the air and on the ground in the United States are on the increase.

By the end of November pilots had reported 808 near collisions -- more than two a day. Most (709) occurred along the airways where the figures exceeded last year's total by 120 incidents. There were also 22 more near collisions on airport runways and taxiways reported this year through November.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) attributes much of this year's increase to improved pilot reporting. The agency checks out each incident to determine if it is critical (within 100 feet), potentially so, or a nonhazard.

But many aviation-safety experts outside the agency view the rising number of near collision reports as a direct byproduct of increasing traffic. They are concerned that the traffic density may be outpacing the ability of pilots and air controllers to deal with it. Traffic that comes under FAA control is now 108 percent of what it was before the majority of the agency's controllers struck and were fired in 1981.

The majority of near collisions involve private planes. Many private pilots fly under visual flight rules and are often outside the airspace positively controlled by the FAA. In these regions, the prevailing rule is that pilots have responsibility to ``see and avoid'' each other. But as the speed of planes steadily increases, many aviation-safety experts and pilots say such heavy reliance on visual ability is unwise and outmoded.

To try to get at the problem, the FAA is increasing the radar control area of many airports from a five- to a ten-mile radius. Pilots entering this controlled air space must be equipped with two-way radios.

Also, the FAA now requires all general-aviation planes equipped with transponders (about 70 percent) to leave the instruments on while flying. These electronic beacons allow controllers to determine a plane's position and altitude.

Pilots and passengers on commercial airliners have good reason to care about all this since private planes move frequently in and out of controlled airspace and a number of near collisions involving general-aviation planes also involve air carriers.

Department of Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole has pledged to add another 40 controllers a month during the next two years. But the dropout and failure rate of new trainees has been high. To date there are about 2,400 fewer controllers working than before the strike. Less than two-thirds are rated as fully qualified.

A number of controllers continue to complain of overwork, stress, and insensitive treatment by FAA management.

Congressional critics such as James L. Oberstar (D) of Minnesota have said that one way or another the FAA must find a way to take ``strong action'' to deal with its human relations problems. His House Public Works Subcommittee recently issued a devastating report on the subject, charging that ``an autocratic management style still thrives'' within the FAA.

``We're doing everything that's humanly possible,'' protests FAA Deputy Associate Administrator for Traffic Control Norbert Owens. He says the agency is getting professional third-party advice and getting more controller input in agency policy decisions. ``I think we'll see some improvements, but it's not going to be all peaches and cream,'' he adds.

It is the effect controller's problems have on job peformance that most concerns aviation-safety experts.

The National Transportation Safety Board has done two studies on the controller situation in the last four years. ``The biggest problem we've identified so far has been with the continued failure of the FAA to deal effectively with stress,'' says NTSB chairman James E. Burnett Jr. ``In some cases controllers have just become overloaded,'' adds NTSB operations expert David R. Kelley.

Well over two-thirds of those radar controllers responding to a General Accounting Office (GAO) survey to be released early in 1986 say they must handle more traffic in daily peak periods than they should. Most say the result adversely affects the safety of the system.

The NTSB has been particularly concerned recently about the number of near collisions at airports. In preparing a special report for release in early 1986, the board has found a pattern of a lack of coordination among controllers who sometimes direct traffic along the same runway. In some cases busy controllers have forgotten instructions given and pilots have failed to hear or follow instructions correctly. Sometimes pilots have read back the wrong instructions and controllers have failed to catch the mistake. ``We're not paying the attention we should be to that readback,'' confirms the FAA's Mr. Owens.

The FAA has taken steps in recent months to try to cope with the near-collision problem at airports. Last summer FAA head Donald Engen made conference telephone calls to agency employees at more than 400 airport towers to urge them to improve and formalize coordination between local controllers who clear planes to land and take off and ground controllers who give taxiing instructions.

Most en route and airport control facilities are now equipped with a ground-based automated conflict alert system to warn controllers when an air collision may be imminent.

Pilots and the NTSB have been pushing for a similar warning device in the cockpit since the 1960s. They charge the FAA has dragged its feet in introducing this traffic alert/collision avoidance system (TCAS). The device has improved to the point that it gives pilots specific horizontal and vertical escape directions.

Though the FAA endorsed the idea in 1981, it is likely to be late in the decade before any airlines adopt it. ``Somebody needs to stand up and say we need it right now,'' insists Air Line Pilots Association president Henry Duffy. But despite NTSB urging, the FAA has no plans to make the TCAS system mandatory. Third of five articles. Tomorrow: Is the FAA doing enough?

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