The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) awarded $56.5 million in new grants Thursday, February 2nd, to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) for runway safety improvements and soundproofing nearby homes.

The announcement comes days after the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a probable cause report Tuesday, January 31st, finding preliminary fault with an air traffic controller for a near-miss incident at LAX two years ago.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta — whose federal department oversees the FAA and NTSB — visited Los Angeles to tour the airport as well as a soundproofed home.

“We see real progress in making the airport safer, more efficient and a better neighbor,” Mineta said. “This has been a long and difficult process, but as a former mayor, I know it is an important one.”

A $29.5 million grant will help pay for the southward relocation of one of four runways at LAX, which will make space for the construction of a new center taxiway.

This new layout at the airport’s South Airfield will allow pilots to taxi their airplanes to and from runways more easily and help avoid takeoff and landing delays, Mineta said.

Transportation officials also hope the new runway layout will reduce the number of times airplanes fly too close together as one plane takes off and another lands or as one plane holds position and another is in movement.

The near-miss incidents are known as incursions, and at LAX, there were eight incursions last year and seven in 2004.

Mineta said the new runway layout “should all but eliminate incursions.”

“Fixing the runway will make this a safer airport,” he said. “That gives us all reason to be more confident in the safety of flights in and out of Los Angeles.”

Federal investment in the South Airfield now totals $68.3 million and the FAA may end up providing more than $100 million for the runway project.

Runway incursion has been on the National Transportation Safety Board’s “Most Wanted List” since the board was established in 1990.

On August 19th, 2004, an Asiana Airlines Boeing 747 and a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 avoided a collision at LAX by 12 seconds and 200 feet.

An air traffic controller with 17 years of experience — four of those years at LAX — and no history of errors or disciplinary action cleared Asiana to land on the same runway in which Southwest had previously been instructed to hold position for takeoff.

The FAA Airport Movement Area Safety System (AMASS) — which is installed at LAX and several other major airports — warned the air traffic control tower of a potential surface collision, but Asiana’s flight crew pulled the plane up before the tower crew could give instructions.

The Airport Movement Area Safety System sounds an alarm in the tower, which only air traffic controllers can hear.

Controllers then determine the nature of the problem, identify the airplanes, and issue instructions to the flight crews.

National Transportation Safety Board acting chairman Mark Rosenker said the Airport Movement Area Safety System is not always adequate to prevent serious runway collisions.

“While on very short final, the Asiana crew saw conflict and initiated a go-around, making a low pass directly over the 737,” Rosenker said.

“The AMASS system at LAX activated a warning in the tower about ten seconds before the two aircraft would have collided, likely too late for effective intervention. Had the Asiana crew not seen the Southwest aircraft and taken action on their own, a major accident could have occurred.”

The NTSB’s aircraft performance analysis, presented in animation, concluded that if the Asiana crew had delayed its go-around until after tower instructions, the plane would have at least struck Southwest’s vertical stabilizer.

The board’s probable cause report does not fault the FAA Airport Movement Area Safety System because the system properly functioned as it was designed.

Preliminary fault for the incursion — until the NTSB issues a final and complete report — is with an air traffic controller whose shift began as another controller’s shift ended.

“A loss of separation between Southwest Flight 440 and Asiana Flight 204 is due to the relief controller’s failure to appropriately monitor the operation and recognize a developing traffic conflict,” NTSB officials wrote in their report.

“Contributing factors included the FAA’s position relief briefing procedures, the formatting of the DBRITE [Digital Brite Radar Indicator Terminal Equipment] in the LAX tower, controller fatigue, and the tower supervisor’s staffing decisions on the day of the incident.”

The air traffic controller in charge of Asiana and Southwest at the time had been asked by the operations supervisor to relieve another controller who needed a break.

The first controller briefed the relief controller on all of the runway and air activity in the sector, which ended when the relief controller said, “All right, well, I’ve got it.”

Tower controller logs for the day of the incursion show that the relief controller spent five hours and 36 minutes on duty before the incident.

He told the NTSB that his shift was a “hard day” and that he got five or six hours of sleep the night before.

Mineta said “there are too many incursions at the airport.”

SOUNDPROOFING — The FAA also awarded $27 million to LAX to soundproof homes in El Segundo, Inglewood, and Lennox.

The grant will pay for double-paned and sound-resistant windows, solid doors, and attic insulation.

Since 1998, the FAA has spent more that $106 million to soundproof 2,400 homes in the LAX area.

Once work is completed, at least 8,000 homes will have been soundproofed.

Lydia Kennard, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports — the City of Los Angeles agency that manages LAX and other city airports, and Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl accompanied Mineta on his tour of the airport.

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