A controversial air-traffic procedure has nearly caused midair collisions during takeoffs and landings around the nation and brought a stern warning from U.S. safety investigators, who this month ordered the practice halted at Memphis International Airport, according to federal records, controllers and pilots.
Passenger jets arriving at Memphis and several other airports routinely fly directly over the top of planes landing on another nearby runway. Earlier this year, a midair collision between a Northwest Airlines DC-9 and a commuter plane was narrowly averted in Memphis, according to a report on the incident.
The issue offers a rare glimpse into the steps aviation officials take to increase capacity at airports and the debates that arise over safety.
Dangerous configurations where planes travel on crossing runways or nearby runways with intersecting flight paths can also be found at other airports, such as Minneapolis-St.Paul, Las Vegas and Philadelphia, said Capt. Larry Newman, chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association's air-traffic group.
Close calls in Memphis have prompted a pitched battle within the FAA. The agency's Air Traffic Safety Oversight Service, an independent investigative arm, demanded in an April2 memo that Memphis managers stop the practice: "This ongoing lack of compliance with FAA regulations ... is unacceptable."
But the agency's air-traffic division has ignored the demand.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown would not comment on the internal dispute. She said the FAA is working to address safety concerns.
Memphis, which had nearly 200,000 departures carrying 5.6 million passengers in 2005, has had a series of close calls associated with landings on two nearby runways. One of the worst occurred Feb.18 at 6:13p.m., according to a report by Peter Nesbitt, an officer with the Memphis unit of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
A Northwest Airlink Saab 340 was about to touch down when its pilots radioed the tower to say they were aborting their landing. At the same moment, a Northwest Airlines DC-9 approaching another runway was headed for the Saab.
A controller ordered the Saab's pilots, "Stay low, stay low!" said the report. The controller then told the DC-9 to climb. It flew over the commuter plane.
"Only some luck and the quick action by the ... controller prevented a midair collision from taking place," the report said.
Pete Sufka, who heads the controllers' union in Memphis, said controllers can't always prevent accidents in similar circumstances.
"I don't want any of my controllers getting in trouble running an operation that one part of the FAA says they shouldn't be operating," Sufka said. "All of these planes have people aboard, and we want them to come down in one piece. That is our job."
The Memphis procedure and others like it around the country allow more flights than if controllers had to keep planes farther apart. In Nesbitt's report, he said an air-traffic manager insisted on using the procedure "because it helps (airlines) make money."
Nesbitt concluded, "We are placing profit over safety against the objections of many controllers who are forced to deal with this unsafe situation."
Newman said pressure to move aircraft is compromising safety. "The way we see it, there are cracks in the system," he said. "There is a tremendous push to increase capacity."