Mar. 26 -- In the wake of several air safety incidents at Los Angeles International Airport and elsewhere, federal regulators are restricting use of an air traffic clearance procedure known as "taxi into position and hold," or TIPH.
The restrictions on TIPH, which expedites traffic by allowing aircraft to taxi onto a runway behind another plane that has started its roll to takeoff, will increase safety at crowded airports, pilots and air traffic controllers say.
But increasing requirements for use of TIPH at small- and medium-size airports could worsen crowding and delays at airports during peak traffic periods, officials said.
Federal Aviation Administration officials have notified FAA-supervised air traffic controllers and commercial airline pilots that continued use of TIPH must be justified to the agency in writing by April 19. Also, FAA officials said, the procedures can be used only under certain guidelines that include fully staffed air traffic control towers.
But, while controllers and pilots commend TIPH restrictions as a safety enhancement, the FAA has temporarily exempted Los Angeles International and 35 of the nation's busiest airports from the TIPH restrictions.
"It's weird," said Doug Fralick, director of safety and technology for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents 15,000 air traffic controllers at 500 commercial towers.
"With the latest incident at Los Angeles International Airport, the FAA has come out with a blanket policy for every towered airport throughout the country that will limit small airports and medium airports, like Tulsa, which have never historically had problems with this procedure.
"We now are going to restrict airports that didn't have problems and turn right around and waiver airports that did have problems."
Tulsa International Airport, which is ranked the 74th busiest airport in the country with 1.46 million passenger boardings in 2004, according to the FAA, also has been given a temporary waiver from the TIPH restrictions, said Kevin Hagar, manager of the FAA's Tulsa Tower.
"We have received a waiver to the new rules, and at this point we're using TIPH," Hagar said. "We have to develop a mitigation plan to ensure what we are doing meets the requirements of the (FAA's) GENOT (general notice) and that TIPH is being done in a safe manner."
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said TIPH is "an internal issue that has become an external issue."
Airports that don't use TIPH require controllers to hold planes on the taxiways short of the runways, Brown said. The drawback to that is the time it takes a pilot to move the aircraft onto the runway and in position for takeoff.
At airports where TIPH is used, officials said, a plane that is second in line for departure taxis onto the runway and halts behind the plane that has begun its takeoff roll. Once the first plane is in the air and several thousand feet down the runway, the second plane begins its roll toward takeoff.
"Some air traffic controllers view TIPH as an added safety benefit by allowing you to space landings and takeoffs more smoothly," Brown said. "And, at some airports it's a capacity issue, allowing you to get more aircraft into the air more quickly."
Although TIPH has been criticized by the National Transportation Safety Board for the way it has been used at the nation's busiest airports in recent years, the issues came into focus Feb. 17.
On that date at Los Angeles International, a controller monitoring two outbound and two inbound runways directed three commercial airliners to use the same runway.
A collision was averted, and there were no injuries or deaths as a result of the operational error by the controller, officials said.
Denis Breslin, a pilot for American Airlines, is a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents more than 13,000 pilots at American. Breslin said APA supports the FAA's new restrictions on TIPH.
"The primary thing for us is that the person who controls (runway) clearance is not distracted by other duties," Breslin said. "The pilot can look out the window and say, 'I can't taxi on the runway, there's another aircraft there.'
"Disasters have been averted because pilots looked out their windows on approach."
The FAA's new TIPH requirements include prohibiting controllers from being responsible for more than one runway or for runways on other parts of the airport. They also prohibit the tower controller from working other positions combined with his or her primary runway responsibility.
"We applaud the FAA's action to improve safety on our runways," said Mike Leone, chairman of the Allied Pilots Association's safety committee. "The risk factors the FAA found in its review are real, and the changes mandated in this notice will significantly mitigate those risks."
But Fralick, the safety director with the controllers association, said it will be difficult for controllers to avoid multiple duties since the FAA's authorized work force is short 1,450 controllers today and is projected to lose more controllers in the future.
As with the TIPH issues, the impending controller work force shortage requires a well-thought-out solution, not a Band-Aid, pilots and controllers said.
"Let's fix the problem," Fralick said.
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