June 15, 2007

The U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general has launched an investigation into the harrowing spike of near-collisions by planes at area airports, The Post has learned.

The investigation was prompted by The Post's front-page story on Monday highlighting an alarming rise in the near midair collisions.

There have been seven near-collisions, defined as two planes coming within 500 feet of each other, this year. Planes are supposed to keep a three-mile distance.

Five of these incidents, commonly called near-misses, happened in May alone. Last year there were just three in the entire region.

"It is critical that we get to the bottom of why these near-misses took place and what the FAA is doing to prevent them in the future. With the upcoming travel season, the airspace will only get busier, so this must be a top priority," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton told The Post in an e-mail.

"If any of these near-misses resulted in a collision, it would also be absolutely devastating to the surrounding areas."

Clinton wrote a letter to the Inspector General's Office Monday demanding a "broader investigation."

The FAA is currently investigating the most recent near-misses in May but treats each incident as an isolated event.

Federal Aviation Administration officials and air-traffic controllers will be interviewed to get at the root cause of the near-misses.

The Inspector General's Office confirmed an audit is under way of how the near-misses happened, but declined to discuss specifics. The FAA declined comment last night.

Pressure has been growing on the FAA to curb the near-misses.

Sen. Chuck Schumer has called for a "top-to-bottom reorganization" of the FAA and said the agency must improve its labor relations with air-traffic controllers while upgrading technology.

And the air-traffic controllers union has said the incidents show that more controllers are needed.

"The more people, the more eyes looking intently at the safety of the air-traffic system, the better," said Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

"The main issue is we are understaffed. We don't have enough controllers in the New York area to move traffic as efficiently as we can and we don't have the best margin of safety that we can have."

The local air-traffic controllers union says Kennedy, Newark and La Guardia airports are short-staffed. For instance, it says there should be 36 controllers at Kennedy, but currently there are 29.

The FAA has previously said the union's numbers are wrong, saying Kennedy has 30 controllers with four more in training. It said all airports are adequately staffed.


'It is critical that we get to the bottom of why these near misses took place and what the FAA is doing to prevent them in the future.' - Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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