Planes barely avoid colliding at LAX; Officials say the near-accident on the tarmac appeared to stem from mistakes by a pilot and a ground traffic controller.

Two commercial jetliners nearly collided Thursday afternoon on the tarmac at LAX, an incident that authorities said appeared to stem from mistakes by the arriving pilot and a ground traffic controller.

Officials said a potentially serious crash was narrowly avoided shortly before 1 p.m. as a WestJet Boeing 737 coming in from Calgary, Canada, was landing on the north field of the airport.

The WestJet craft, which seats up to 132 passengers, came less than 200 feet -- and perhaps as little as 50 feet -- from striking a 150-seat Northwest Airbus A320 that was taking off.

No one was hurt in what officials termed a "runway incursion." The incident remains under investigation.

Officials said the departing Northwest craft was traveling about 150 mph when the WestJet approached its path.

The WestJet plane, moving at a few miles an hour, managed to stop just in time to avoid a crash. It was shifting from the outside runway, where it landed, toward the inside runway, where the Northwest plane was taking off.

Arriving planes must cross the inside runway to reach their gates.

Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said preliminary evidence indicated a "double mistake."

He said the arriving pilot switched radio frequencies, shifting from the air traffic controller to the ground traffic controller, before receiving the air controller's final instructions.

Then, when the pilot radioed ground control to say he was proceeding to his gate, the ground controller cleared him without checking with air traffic control, Gregor said.

Typically, the air traffic controller will guide the pilot from about five to seven miles away from the airport until the aircraft lands on the tarmac.

That air traffic controller will then tell the pilot how to proceed before switching to ground control.

Gregor said he does not know the reasons for the errors by the pilot or ground controller.

The incursion marks the eighth such incident at Los Angeles International Airport in 2007, matching the 2006 total.

The airport has a "traditionally high level of runway incursions" and has been working on the problem for about a decade, Gregor said. He said those efforts include frequent meetings involving officials from the FAA, the airport and pilots.

In addition, a $330-million construction project is underway at the south airfield to ease similar safety problems. The work will move the southernmost runway 55 feet farther south and add a center taxiway. Officials said that project would be finished in about a year.

But proposed improvements at the north airfield, where about one in every four such incidents occur, have been stalled as political leaders and community activists debate noise and traffic issues. The north airfield is near terminals 1,2 and 3.

LAX officials contend that the north airfield must be reconfigured to allow for larger aircraft.

But residents of the neighboring communities of Westchester and Playa del Rey say their quality of life already suffers because of airport activity.

Officials say the north airfield was originally built for smaller and slower planes.

A report ordered by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and completed this summer warned of "the likelihood of a catastrophic aircraft collision" if nothing was changed on the north side of the facility.

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ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Jennifer Oldham contributed to this story.


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