Air traffic controllers at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) say they would rather reduce the number of landings of aircraft and cease landings on primary departure (inboard) runways than risk aircraft safety by adhering to the new mandate of a previously not enforced order by the FAA that requires them to receive a “correct read-back” of flight instructions from pilots landing at the airport, said Mike Foote, president of the NATCA (National Air Traffic Controllers Association) LAX Air Traffic Control Tower union.
The FAA instructions (R&I 08-033) dated February 27th this year, state, “Instruct aircraft where to turn off the runway after landing, ‘when appropriate’, and advise the aircraft to hold short of a runway or taxiway if required for traffic,” according to a document Foote says he received from another air traffic station.
The document continues, “Our [air traffic controllers’] interpretation, as well as that of (AWP-530 – regional office) was that ‘when appropriate’ referred to instructing aircraft where to turn off the runway; in other words, if we did not instruct an aircraft where to turn off the runway there was no requirement on our part to issue hold short instructions.
“We [air traffic controllers] have been advised by (AJT-23) Terminal Airspace and Procedures that our interpretation is incorrect and the following is effective immediately: ‘When an aircraft exits the runway, we shall advise it to hold short of a runway or taxiway if required for traffic, regardless of whether or not we instructed the aircraft to exit the runway.’
“And so we all understand the ramifications, if we fail to issue the hold short instruction, and the aircraft passes the hold bar, and if there is a loss of separation with traffic on the adjacent runway, the incident will be an OE (controller error) and a PD (pilot error).”
Ian Gregor, FAA communications manager for the Western-Pacific Region, maintains that the rule is not a new national change because everyone else was already using this procedure.
“We made the phraseology change to bring LAX’s procedure into conformance with national procedures. I’m surprised that the controller’s union would complain about a safety enhancement,” said Gregor.
When asked by The Argonaut why it took the FAA so long to allow LAX to deviate from a rule that he said was not new, Gregor responded, “We [FAA] periodically review all sorts of procedures to try to ensure that they are standardized throughout the nation. Safety is improved if there are standardized procedures all over the country.
“Controllers all over the country issue ‘hold short’ instructions the way controllers at LAX are now required to. Requiring controllers to give a hold short instruction to every arriving pilot provides an added layer of safety,” Gregor said.
Foote said, “The problem this new mandate creates is with safety and priorities. When we are landing and departing on the same runways it creates several high-risk situations.
“What’s happening now is, an aircraft is holding on the primary departure runway and another is bearing down on it to land on the same runway.
“The controllers’ priority needs to be clearing the departure for takeoff so the arrival can safely land. Unfortunately, we are too often placed in a situation where, when we do what is safest, we face discipline and possible termination of our jobs.
“Due to this conflict, we can no longer in good conscience support landing on our primary departure [inboard] runways.”
“There has been much discussion of spending billions of dollars to move a [northern] runway and change the ‘geometry’ of the airport.
“It wasn’t geometry that caused the crash in 1991. It was an aircraft holding on a departure runway and another landing on the same runway, exactly what we are trying to prevent by taking this stand,” said Foote.
Controllers said that dropping the airport “acceptance rate” from 84 aircraft to 72 aircraft per hour is negligible and they haven’t reached the decision lightly, said Foote.
The air traffic is supposed to be “metered” using ten-minute increments, and the end result of dropping the acceptance rate would be the loss of two arrivals every ten minutes.
“We know the airlines will not be happy, but due to all of our new restrictions and mandates, we cannot allow this to continue without voicing our concerns for the public’s safety,” Foote said. “What the FAA has essentially done is increase our workload in an attempt to remind professional pilots not to run the stop sign.
“They are required to stop short of a runway after landing. It is as basic for pilots as it is for a driver of a car stopping at a red light.”
Foote said that the LAX Tower has been “under the microscope in recent years for the sheer number of runway incursions and well-documented staffing problems [of too few air traffic controllers].
“This is a position we have been close to making for the south-side [runways] anyway, due to a couple of devastating restrictions out of the C-10 alleyway — on the south side where the large, international flights are located and at P Taxiway — this is the most important bit of real estate on the airport and we cannot use it with most of the aircraft that come out of the alleyway due to Los Angeles World Airport changes that don’t allow aircraft to turn to the right on the inner taxiway.
“That makes clearing runways much more difficult than it has been in the past. This new procedure was just the last straw.”
Gregor said, “Mr. Foote’s press release is rife with inaccuracies and misstatements. He claims the procedure ‘is advertised as being a national change.’ Wrong. Nobody ‘advertised’ the procedure, period. Plus, it was not a national change because everyone else was already using this procedure.
“He brings up the 1991 USAir-Sky West crash, as if it was somehow relevant to the discussion of a small but important phraseology change. The issue in the 1991 crash wasn’t that the aircraft was holding on a particular runway on which another aircraft was landing.
“The issue was that the departing aircraft was holding down the runway, in the landing area, rather than at the far east end of the runway. To address this issue, we eliminated intersection takeoffs at night.
“Controllers at LAX have been using the national procedure for the past couple of weeks with no problems whatsoever.
“Reducing the hourly arrival rate by six aircraft — or one plane every ten minutes — would have no appreciable effect on controller workload.
“The fact is that LAX rarely lands more than 65 to 70 aircraft in an hour.
“However, assuming LAX’s air traffic at some point returns to pre-9/11 levels, reducing the hourly arrival rate at the nation’s fourth busiest airport would create severe delays throughout the country,” Gregor said.
HOLD SHORT INSTRUCTIONS — Foote explained how the hold short instruction works.
“Just to be clear, anytime a controller gives an instruction to hold short, they are required to get a correct read-back [from the pilot],” said Foote. “What changed was forcing us to give that hold short instruction to each aircraft landing, despite pilots being required to hold short by federal aviation regulations (FARs) and controllers having a higher priority transmission to make.
“If you don’t [give the hold short instruction] and the pilot makes a mistake, you are given a controller error (OE) and disciplined for insubordination. That is not true at any other airport that we have spoken to.
“In the past, controllers would at times not say anything to a pilot exiting an out-board runway coming up on a hold bar, because they are required to hold, no matter what.
“After this change [new ruling], if a controller makes a higher priority transmission [to another aircraft] and that arrival passes the hold bar, the controller will be given an operational error and probably be disciplined for failing to follow the new order. That means controllers will be placed in many situations where it could be impossible to separate the airplanes if we continue to land on the in-boards [runways],” Foote said.
“For instance, if an aircraft is ‘short final’ to land on an inboard and a plane is holding on that runway (for example Runway 24L as in the US Air crash), and an aircraft is coming up on the hold bars after landing on Runway 24R, the controller must clear the aircraft on Runway 24L for takeoff or he will lose separation and risk hundreds of lives, but the FAA now says he must give a hold short instruction which may now be too late if the arriving pilot passes the hold bars.
“This pilot could be fired. Now, [envision] the same situation and the controller chooses to tell the pilot pulling up to the hold bars exiting Runway 24R to ‘hold short’ of Runway 24L for landing and departing traffic, and the pilot gives an incorrect read-back as happens often (any time a controller issues a hold short you must ensure a correct read-back).
“The controller must now say ‘read-back hold short instruction’ and assuming this time the read-back is correct, the aircraft on final approach must be sent around because the other airplane is still sitting on Runway 24L. In this case, the controller will likely have ‘set off’ the AMASS (Airport Movement Area Safety System) alarm. It will then be classified as an operational error and the controller will likely be decertified.”
Foote said that if a controller has more than one or two operational errors, he or she would be removed from LAX and even fired as a controller.
“The whole thing puts us in a no-win situation,” Foote said. “It also places the flying public in some pretty unsafe places as well. That’s why we say it is no longer possible to run this operation safely. Just stay on the outboard runways and all these problems go away and we can safely issue hold short instructions to all arrivals. We are not saying that is a bad thing by itself. It is the in-boards that make it unsafe.”
With summer coming and the new rulings in effect, said Foote, the controllers won’t be able to clear the runways on the south side.
Some local residents opposed to the proposal to move the northern runway a minimum of 340 feet to the north contend that the FAA’s new rule isn’t about safety, but an attempt to “ram the safety issue down the throats of the air traffic controllers” because of their position that incursions are caused by human error rather than the need to move the northern runway.
Denny Schneider, president of ARSAC (Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion) said that the controllers are asking for a common-sense fix.
“I support the controllers’ call for one runway for landings at a time,” said Schneider. “There is a runway preference set by Los Angeles World Airports that the FAA currently gives lip service by still using both runways for takeoffs or both for landings during peak times.
“The FAA is pushing for increased throughput while also creating a significant increase in workload — all of this at a time when the number of experienced controllers is being reduced.
“If the FAA really believes in safety they would not do this. Asking controllers to reconfirm that the pilots have heard their instructions and are stopping before crossing a runway is like asking a police officer to work a very active major intersection, telling him to make sure traffic doesn’t back up, while insisting that they have each car stop and signal that they’re stopped, then allowing one car to go at a time instead of having one way go for a while and then the other to clear traffic,” Schneider said.