Controller shortage hurt LAX

STUDY: Air-traffic agency blames lack of staffers for the increase in runway mistakes. By Art Marroquin STAFF WRITER A shortage in air-traffic controllers led to 55 so-called runway incursions reported at Los Angeles...

There are 11,467 experienced controllers left in the United States, according to the union. That's an 11-year low, and more than 1,100 fewer than the number of controllers working during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"We're losing our best controllers to a bad deal forced on us," Foote said. "Impacts on controller staffing will have adverse impacts on runway safety."

Although union officials claim that fewer controllers are handling more flights at the nation's airports, LAX is not one of those examples, according to the FAA.

LAX logged 657,000 flights last year, down from 785,000 flights in 2000, the FAA reported.

"Fewer flights means the tower is not nearly as busy as it was seven years ago," Gregor said. "The simple fact is that safety is not compromised by staffing reductions, but there are rare times when some good air-traffic controllers make bad mistakes."

Such was the case Aug. 16, when two airplanes came within 37 feet of each other during one of the most recent runway incursions reported at LAX.

The pilot of a WestJet Boeing 737 arriving from Canada landed on one of LAX's northern runways and switched radio frequencies to the ground traffic controller before receiving final instruction from the air traffic controller, according to the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board.

The ground controller then mistakenly cleared the pilot to cross the runway and proceed to a terminal gate, believing that an air traffic controller had already given the go-ahead.

As a result, the WestJet plane nearly collided with a Northwest Airlines Airbus A320 that was taking off for Memphis, Tenn.

The near-collision prompted calls for improved safety and a possible reconfiguration of the north airfield at LAX.

Foote, however, said millions of dollars budgeted to modernize LAX and improve airfield safety could be better spent on hiring more staffers in the control tower.

"Instead of spending billions of dollars moving runways, you could improve air traffic safety by hiring more qualified controllers to watch those runways," Foote said. "Spend the money on improving air traffic safety, and you'll get a whole lot more out of it."

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