Traffic perils unresolved at two California airports

Much-needed safety improvements at two major California airports -- in San Diego and San Francisco -- are still in abeyance. At Lindbergh Field in San Diego, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has yet to correct air traffic control deficiences dramatized by the midair collision of a jetliner and a private plane in September 1978.

At San Francisco International Airport, two problems involving "counterflow" landings and tricky "shoreline takeoffs" continue to trouble the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA).

Since the 1978 midair collision over San Diego, no basic changes in flight patterns have been made or are planned. In San Francisco, discussions over changes have dragged on for two years with no action.

The state of affairs in San Diego prompted the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to launch an unusual investigation in November, after a near- collision (Nov. 9) between a large commercial jet and a small private plane. Just as the three-man NTSB team was concluding its work in San Diego another similar incident (Nov. 18) was reported.

In response, the NTSB warned Dec. 28 that "serious danger continues to exist for a catastrophic aircraft collision in the San Diego area."

The NTSB urged that all pilots entering the San Diego terminal airspace receive clearance from air traffic control. Private pilots are not required to secure that clearance. The board also recommended that the FAA expedite plans for installation of a terminal control area (TCA). The FAA is waiting until Feb. 5 for public comment on that proposal. A decision is likely by early March.

But the FAA is proposing that a "Group II" TCA be used, not the more restrictive "Group I" that would require all planes to carry altitude encoders that automatically transmit altitude information to air traffic controllers.

For at least one air safety expert, however, the TCA is not the issue. "You can make as many mistakes inside a TCA as you can without one," says Maurice Garbell, a private consultant based in San Francisco. "Where there could be divergence there is still convergence," he says.

Dr. Garbell urges that the practices of heading small planes in the general direction of incoming traffic at Lindbergh be altered immediately, that a ceiling be placed over the general-aviation traffic at nearby Montgomery Field, and that an eight-mile "level of safety" be placed around each jet as it lands and leaves San Diego.

The FAA has no such plans. the TCA will most likely be installed, "but there will be only very minor changes in traffic flows if any at all," says Richard Morris, an air-space and procedure specialist for the FAA in Los Angeles.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) says the NTSB stepped outside its jurisdiction in making recommendations, which are not binding, to the FAA. The NTSB normally does not involve itself unless a fatality has occurred.

The AOPA proposes that commercial jets approach Lindbergh Field through a 10 -mile-wide corridor from much farther to the east and, on flights from the north , from a much higher altitude than they now travel. The current system, AOPa spokesman Charles Spence says, is designed for the convenience of commercial carriers and places the burden of responsibility on general aviation.

Jets departing on runway 10 are currently allowed to take off as long as jets landing in the opposite direction -- on Runway 28, the same strip of concrete -- are more than 15 miles away. That measure of safety, both ALPA and Dr. Garbell say, is unacceptable.

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