2 planes that nearly collided at LAX were only 37 feet apart, report says

A near-collision between two planes on a runway at Los Angeles International Airport last week was closer than originally estimated: The two airliners were only 37 feet apart, aviation officials reported Wednesday.

A WestJet Boeing 737 that had arrived from Calgary, Canada, was crossing the runway about 1 p.m. Aug. 16 when it almost collided with a Northwest Airlines Airbus A320 that was speeding toward takeoff, said a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The board investigates the six to 10 most serious such incidents each year, said spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz.

The WestJet pilot switched to a different radio frequency before being cleared by tower controllers to taxi across the Northwest plane's runway. A ground controller then mistakenly instructed the pilot to proceed across the runway.

The WestJet plane traveled slowly toward the Northwest plane, which sped up to about 150 mph in preparation for takeoff, said Ian Gregor, spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, which also is investigating the incident.

Officials initially said the two planes were about 50 feet apart. A plane on the taxiway should be at least 205 feet from the edge of the runway, Gregor said.

This is the seventh runway incursion at LAX since Oct. 1, 2006, Gregor said.

Of the about 657,000 takeoffs and landings from Oct. 1, 2005, to Sept. 30, 2006, there were eight incursions, he said. Among the 35 busiest commercial airports nationwide, LAX has the fifth-highest rate of such close calls, Gregor said.

Aircraft that land on the outer runway at LAX must cross the inner runway -- where planes take off -- to reach their gates.

Though a $330-million project is underway to move a runway on the south airfield to help reduce such problems, similar plans to reconfigure the north airfield have stalled due to community opposition.

This week, Los Angeles airport commissioners approved a sixth study of the safety of the airport's north runways.

"Most runway incursions are pretty minor," Gregor said. "The one we had last week certainly wasn't."

Because air traffic controllers are helping with the safety board's investigation, the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn., which represents about 14,000 controllers nationwide, declined to comment on the incident, spokesman Doug Church said.

susannah.rosenblatt@latimes .com