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