For the fourth time this year, a jetliner at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) was involved in a close call with another airplane, Tuesday, May 29th.

According to LAX air traffic controllers, a Delta Airlines jetliner landed on Runway 25 L (left) just after 8 p.m. The jet was asked to “hold short,” or wait near the runway’s safety bar, before crossing onto a second runway, 25 R (right), where it would reach its final stop.

The jetliner continued to roll past the airfield sign and appeared headed for the second runway.

“I observed that [the pilot] was heading for the runway,” said Michael Foote, the controller who was handling the jetliner and the other plane, a Boeing 727 cargo jet operated by Kitty Hawk Inc., which was speeding toward takeoff on Runway 25 R.

Foote said that after the Delta plane was notified that it was to hold, it continued its way toward Runway 25 R, causing the controller to inform the pilot to verify that he was to hold his location.

“He then lurched to a stop,” said the controller. “If I hadn’t said anything, the Delta could have continued on into the active runway. And if the 727 had been a 747 […] it’s hard to imagine that they would not have collided.”

But Ian Gregor of the Federal Aviation Administration’s public affairs bureau countered, “It wasn’t even close to being a collision. The Delta seemed to be going a little too fast, and it moved about 20 feet over the runway line.”

FAA rules state that an airplane is not allowed to cross an active runway, which is a runway that is being used by another aircraft.

Gregor said the FAA is still investigating the incident, called a runway incursion.

“We take every runway incursion very seriously,” he said.

Foote estimates that the jet came within about 50 feet of the smaller plane.

Both Foote and Gregor alleged that the incursion was the result of pilot error, which accounts for the majority of such occurrences at LAX.

“They almost never result in crashes,” Gregor pointed out.

A runway incursion is described as any occurrence in the airport runway environment involving an aircraft, vehicle, person, or object on the ground that creates a collision hazard or results in a loss of required separation with an intention to take off or land, according to the FAA Web site.

Foote, the local president of the National Traffic Controllers Association, said he believes that cutbacks in staffing have greatly contributed to the number of runway incursions by aircraft.

“It’s hard to believe that there’s not a direct correlation,” he said.

During a 27-month period, from May 2002 until August 2004, the airport had no such incidents, according to Foote. During that period, there were between 45 and 50 air traffic con- trollers, but recent cuts have reduced the number to 34.

“Controllers are working longer hours, and catching less and less (pilot mistakes),” he lamented.

Gregor disagrees. “I don’t think it’s that unusual for an airport this size,” he stated, referring to the number of incursions this year.

Regarding Foote’s assertion that there is a nexus between cutbacks in air traffic controllers and increased runway incursions, Gregor noted that in 23 reported occurrences, only five were due to mistakes by controllers.

“In this case, the controller was on the ball,” he pointed out. “This is exactly how the safety system is supposed to work.”

Although most incursions on airport runways do not, as Gregor stated, result in fatalities or collision, they can nevertheless have the potential for disaster. On November 22nd, 1999, an AeromÈxico MD-80 failed to hold short of an active runway and wandered into the path of a departing United Airlines 757. The planes missed each other by approximately 60 feet, due only to the fact that the United pilot made the decision to lift off earlier than he was supposed to.

And last month, a turboprop airplane missed hitting a jumbo jet by the same distance. The smaller plane had made a series of wrong turns, which led it into the path of the jet.

“If planes were not flying at maximum capacity during peak hours, there wouldn’t be as many incursions,” says Denny Schneider, president of the Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion, a Westchester-based grass-roots organization that is opposed to increasing air traffic at LAX.

The southern runways have been the site of the majority of the incursions at the airport this year.

On Tuesday, June 5th, Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl held a town hall meeting to address airport runway safety and the modernization at LAX, where the public was encouraged to voice concerns about these topics. Representatives from Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), the agency that operates the airport, were to present data and safety information on the northern runways and the reconfiguration options.

Late last month, a federal report concluded that the number of incursions at large airports, including LAX, highlights the importance of further study into what is causing the level of incursions to rise and better training for pilots and air traffic controllers.

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