California airline crash renews concern over safety, congestion

The tragic mid-air collision of a jetliner and single-engine plane over southern California Sunday is likely to renew concern over airline safety in the United States. In particular, it is expected to heighten worry about traffic congestion in some of the nation's busiest air corridors. It may also give added impetus to a longstanding drive to develop electronic equipment that helps pilots avoid in-flight collisions.

The crash was the first serious accident involving a major air carrier so far this year.

All 64 passengers and crew members aboard the Aeromexico DC-9 and three people on board the light aircraft were killed when the jetliner and the small private Piper crashed and then hurtled to earth in Cerritos, a suburban residential community 20 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles.

Twenty homes were set ablaze by wreckage that cut a fiery swath through several blocks of the neighborhood. Nine homes were destroyed. Several residents of the neighborhood have been reported missing and although ground fatalities are assumed, there was no official count at press time.

The exact cause of the accident was not immediately known. The DC-9 was descending on its approach to Los Angeles International Airport when it was believed to be struck by the light aircraft.

The jetliner was under Federal Aviation Administration control at the time of the collision. The light plane was not. In clear weather, as was the case Sunday, pilots are required to visually search for approaching aircraft. Ordinarily, a ground air-traffic controller will warn a jetliner of an approaching plane. On Monday, federal safety officials were examining the airliner's cockpit voice recorder to determine if any warnings were given.

The crash mars what had been an otherwise improved year for aviation safety. In June, 25 sightseers died in a helicopter-plane collision over the Grand Canyon. Until this weekend, however, there had been no serious accidents involving major airliners in the US. In 1985, there were nearly 2,000 airline fatalities worldwide -- a record -- 521 of which occurred in the US.

Sunday's collision, the worst in L.A. history, was reminiscent of one that occurred in southern California in 1978, when a Boeing 727 collided with a small plane over San Diego. In that crash, 137 people perished in the planes while another seven died on the ground.

The latest collision is bound to fuel concerns about the growing volume of traffic in some air corridors, including Los Angeles. Critics charge that airline deregulation has led to a proliferation of new airlines and an increase in the number of passengers flying, which, in turn, has put added strains on major airports. Roughly one-third of all air traffic in the US is estimated to be over southern California.

Adding to concerns is the feeling that the nation's air-traffic control system has not yet rebounded from the dismissal of controllers in 1981. Yet FAA officials insist that the control system is safe. As recently as Sunday, before the crash occurred, FAA chief Donald Engen acknowledged on a TV talk show that ``we do need more airports'' to handle the congestion. But he added that there are enough air-traffic controllers to cope now.

Meanwhile, a special electronic air collision-avoidance system, which has been under development for more than two decades, is now beginning to be tested on a few commercial airliners. Yet the device is not expected to be in widespread use on commercial airliners until the end of the decade. Moreover, its expensive price tag may keep it out of the reach of private pilots.

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