Controllers on the ropes

February 06, 1991

The runway collision on Friday in Los Angeles between a commercial airliner and a small commuter plane that left 32 people dead is a clear warning that the air traffic control system of major U.S. airports is dangerously overextended. According to the Federal Aviation Administration's own statistics, near-collisions between planes on the ground climbed almost 50 percent last year, to 267. And the agency still may not have enough experienced controllers to handle heavy traffic at the nation's busiest airports.

Initial reports indicate that the control system was simply overwhelmed on the day of the accident. A ground radar that might have warned controllers that two planes were on the same runway was temporarily out of service. A backup controller who should have been on duty was not in the tower. And the controller's view of a critical runway intersection was obstructed by a building. As so often happens, a series of seemingly minor judgment and equipment failures combined to create a catastrophe.

Ever since the air traffic controllers' strike of 1981, when President Ronald Reagan fired hundreds of workers while claiming that safety would not be impaired, air travelers have been operating on the assumption government would make good on its promise. Now it appears that progress has not nearly kept pace with the burgeoning volume of traffic in today's deregulated environment.

To be sure, the FAA has been working on the problem and may announce as early as this week new initiatives to deal with the hazard, including standardized runway and taxiway markings, new ground radar technology and such things as computer screen maps of airports for jetliner cockpits. The crash in Los Angeles should be a signal to federal regulators that such changes are urgently needed.

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