INQUIRY: Last week's runway incursion, the seventh since Oct. 1, was much closer than first thought.
By Art Marroquin
Two airplanes came within 37 feet of each other during a so- called "runway incursion" last week at Los Angeles International Airport, according to a preliminary report released Wednesday by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The estimate is much closer than the 50 to 200 feet first reported when a WestJet Boeing 737 arriving from Calgary, Canada, nearly collided with a Northwest Airbus A320 that was taking off for Memphis just before 1 p.m. Aug.16, according to the NTSB, which has launched a full investigation.
The near-collision has been attributed to mistakes by a pilot and a ground traffic controller, according to the Federal Aviation Administration and the NTSB's preliminary report.
The pilot aboard the WestJet Boeing 737 landed on one of LAX's northern runways and switched radio frequencies to the ground traffic controller before receiving final instructions from the air traffic controller, according to the NTSB.
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.
Meanwhile, the air traffic controller cleared the Northwest plane for takeoff, believing the WestJet plane would hold between runways, according to the NTSB.
The ground controller then realized the pilot was not cleared to cross the runway, and instructed him to stop.
The planes came within 37 feet of each other, according to the report.
No injuries were reported during the airport's seventh runway incursion since Oct. 1, 2006, according to the FAA.
The airport had eight close calls during the last fiscal year, according to the FAA.
"The recent incursion on the north airfield absolutely emphasizes the urgency of stepping up to address the issue of safety on the north airfield," FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said Wednesday.
Blakey said the FAA cannot direct the airport how to make the northern runways safer, but noted that the agency approved a plan two years ago that calls for moving one of the northern runways south and demolishing Terminals 1, 2 and 3 and a portion of the Tom Bradley International Terminal.
Gina Marie Lindsey, head of Los Angeles World Airports, agreed with Blakey's assessment, adding that the current configuration of the northern runways cannot handle super-sized jumbo jets that are scheduled to land at LAX beginning next year.
"The reality is that we have old airfields that are not completely safe and can efficiently handle new aircraft," Lindsey said. "Our task in front of us is to find a range of alternatives to meet the future safely."
On Monday, the Los Angeles Airport Commission agreed to spend up to $2million to allow NASA Ames Research Center to study safety at LAX's northern runways.
The study will be the sixth completed this year.
The previous studies, completed by aviation consulting groups, called for moving one of the two parallel northern runways about 340 feet toward the communities of Westchester and Playa del Rey.
"The previous five studies were not studies of safety, they were studies of operational efficiency," said Rep. Jane Harman, D-El Segundo, whose district includes LAX.
"Surely a goal might be to make certain this airport accommodates the largest jumbo jets," Harman said. "But guess what? It will accommodate those jets, even without moving the north runway anywhere."