Four Near Hits on LAX Runways Revive Safety Concerns

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Airplanes have come alarmingly close to each other four times in the last month at Los Angeles International Airport, reviving concerns about safety at an airport with an outdated and confusing runway layout, according to newspaper reports.

City and airport officials blamed the near hits - the first since November - on human error and a 14 percent increase in the number of international flights in May and June. The incidents were reported Friday by both the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal.

None of the errors resulted in accidents and aviation officials say passengers weren't in immediate danger.

''Given what we know so far, no one on any of these planes was really in any danger,'' said Donn Walker, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration. ''But we have pretty stringent safety parameters, and they were violated and that does concern us.''

LAX has long been known among pilots for its challenging configuration, which includes two sets of parallel runways on the south and north sides. Airplanes that land on the outer runways must cross the inner runways, where jets take off, to reach the terminals.

From 2000 to 2003, LAX led the nation in near hits between aircraft. From 1997 to 2000, the airport recorded 13 serious near crashes on the ground - the most among the nation's busiest airports.

Near hits between aircraft have declined since airport officials launched an intensive campaign to educate pilots and added lighting and warning signals on the airfield.

In 2003, LAX posted 11 incidents. Five were recorded in 2004, three of them in the same month last summer.

One of the more serious recent incidents happened at 9:45 p.m. Sunday when the pilot of a United Express jet bound for Santa Barbara aborted his takeoff and slammed on his brakes to avoid a Continental Express jet that had moved too close to the runway. The United plane stopped just 100 feet from the Continental aircraft.

The other three incidents, which occurred since May 23, also involved aircraft crossing or moving too close to a runway where an airplane was readying for takeoff. Two of those occurred on the south side and one on the north side.

- On May 23 at 8:13 p.m. an American Eagle turboprop took off on the inner runway as an American Airlines 757 from Newark was taxing across the same runway. The planes came within about 4,500 feet of each other.

- On Tuesday at 2:45 p.m., a United 737 edged past bars separating the inner and outer runways as an American Airlines was taking off on the inner runway. The controller decided it was too late to abort takeoff. The American MD-80 came within 350 to 400 feet of the United jet.

- On Wednesday at 1:13 p.m., Southwest Airlines flight 2197 landed on the outer runway on the airport's north side. Controllers cleared another Southwest jet to take off on the inner runway. During a mix-up, the landing jet come within 200 feet of the departing jet.

Officials hope to correct the problems on the airport's south side by moving the southernmost runway 55 feet and building a taxiway down the middle. That project is part of the first phase of an $11 billion plan to modernize LAX.