PERHAPS 1987 will be merely The Year of Close Calls for airplane travel, but the news from the skies these days is not at all comforting. The latest certified horror story involved a Delta Air Lines jumbo jet that drifted 60 miles off course over the North Atlantic and came within 100 feet of colliding with a Continental Airlines jet on Wednesday. Some witnesses now charge that the Delta flight crew attempted to cover up this incident; a U.S. Air Force jet was in the area and taped a radio conversation reportedly revealing a cover-up attempt. As if this weren't enough to chill travelers, there have been reports of a plane landing at the wrong airport and a near-collision involving jetliners about 800 miles south of New York City. What's causing all this?
Aviation safety officials cite all sorts of factors -- starting with more air traffic. But more to the point are some conditions cited in a National Transportation Safety Board report on the collision last August of an Aeromexico jetliner and a small private plane near Los Angeles that killed 82 people. The board said inadequacies of the system for controlling traffic -- rather than individual human errors -- were the prime cause. The private pilot's airspace violation clearly was an element, but board members renewed their call for more measures to reduce the threat of in-air collisions.
The gist of these recommendations gets down to two basics: better equipment, better-trained people. Neither the Federal Aviation Administration nor the airlines can afford to look the other way. Luck is no substitute for maximum precautions.