Following a serious near-collision involving two planes on a runway at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) late last month, City Councilman Bill Rosendahl has called for a review of the airport’s Runway Status Lights system and an update on air traffic controller staffing issues.

The latest so-called runway incursion incident occurred on the south airfield at LAX October 25th, after a Midwest Express Embraer jet landed on Runway 25L and was instructed by an air traffic controller to turn onto a taxiway and stop short of Runway 25R.

The jet’s pilot correctly read back the instructions but then proceeded closer toward the edge of Runway 25R, where a Northwest Airlines Boeing 757 was about to take off, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spokesman Ian Gregor said.

The traffic controller saw the Midwest jet approaching the runway edge and instructed the pilot to stop just as an alarm sounded in the controller tower, Gregor said. The jet came to a stop with its nose about 70 feet from the runway, approximately 82 feet from the departing Northwest plane, which had its wings about 12 feet inside the runway, Gregor said.

The seriousness of the incursion has not yet been classified by the FAA.

An air traffic controller who was working in the tower at the time and witnessed the incident said it appeared that the two planes were going to collide. Michael Foote, local president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, has estimated that the planes came far closer than the FAA’s determination, approximately ten to 15 feet from each other.

“It happened right in front of me; I couldn’t have had a better look at it,” Foote said of the incident. “There’s no way there could’ve been 82 feet between the airplanes.”

But Gregor rejected the controller’s estimation, saying that an analysis of the radar confirms that the planes were “nowhere near that close.”

“It was a serious incident, but it was not ten to 15 feet,” Gregor said. “A speculation like that serves no purpose other than to alarm people.”

Asked about the FAA’s 82-foot determination, Foote said he and the other controller working the incident are sticking by their estimation, claiming that the radar recording equipment is inaccurate.

The FAA has attributed the close-call to both pilot and controller error, Gregor said. The Midwest Express pilot proceeded to cross the hold lines after reading back the instructions to stop, while the traffic controller apparently did not receive the “call sign” from the pilot, he said.

Foote agreed that pilot error occurred but he disputed any error by controllers, saying it’s not a requirement for them to get the “call sign” from the pilot.

Rosendahl noted that Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that operates LAX, took steps to address runway safety concerns on the south airfield this year by installing the first phase of a new Runway Status Lights system, which automatically warns pilots of oncoming traffic. The system has not been installed at all areas and Rosendahl noted that the most recent incursion occurred on a taxiway that was not protected by the system.

Citing the need to explore implementing the status lights at all runway intersections at LAX, the councilman has called for LAWA officials to report to the council’s Trade, Commerce and Tourism Committee on such a plan. The move is intended to prevent any future incursions from happening, he added.

“We would rather be safe than sorry,” said Rosendahl, explaining his motion. “I want an update so we know exactly what the status is of the runway status lights.”

Gregor said that the motion gives an “inaccurate” distance of 15 feet between the planes in explaining the incursion, but Rosendahl said that distance was reported at the time and the issue will be addressed before the committee.

Gregor said the FAA will review any recommendations made by Rosendahl or the airport regarding the runway lights system.

“We take suggestions like these seriously,” he said.

Rosendahl also explained that air traffic controllers have indicated that they are understaffed with certified traffic controllers in the LAX tower and tend to work overtime shifts.

“It’s not a good thing for our air traffic controllers to be working overtime; they need to be alert and sharp,” Rosendahl said.

The councilman believes the tower staffing levels are still not where they should be and he has additionally requested an update on staffing issues.

Foote explained that controllers’ reaction time could slow down and they will catch less mistakes if they are regularly working overtime.

But Gregor said it would be wrong to suggest that the latest runway incursion was connected to issues of controller staffing. The LAX tower currently has 55 controllers on board, 36 of whom are fully certified and 19 are trainees, he said.

“The idea that this incident had anything to do with controller staffing is plain false,” he said.

Foote said he was encouraged by Rosendahl’s proposal to study controller staffing levels and the runway lights system.

“I believe that (the motion) would do more for safety at LAX than anything else that’s being discussed right now and it would cost far less money,” Foote said.

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