Because of a transmission error, an article yesterday about air traffic over Los Angeles said there were 51 air collisions in that area over a 12-month period. It should have said there were 51 near- collisions. (Published 11/12/87)
PALMDALE, CALIF. -- Even in the skies around southern California, rush hour lasts all day.
At the air traffic control center here, which handles perhaps the most complex mix of aircraft anywhere in America, controllers are confronted with a galaxy of green oblong blips and little v's.
The blips on the scope are the jets, under control of the controllers. The v's are the small planes, usually flying on their own.
On a clear day, "there are dozens, many dozens" of little v's on the radar, said John Hatcher, a senior controller who works Sector 20, the final approach path for jets into Los Angeles International Airport. "I don't know how to state the magnitude."
Lately, Hatcher has been seeing even more little v's mixed with the green blips on his radar -- more small planes mixing with the jet traffic he's trying to position for final approach into Los Angeles.
This increase occurred after the Federal Aviation Administration redrew airspace boundaries around Los Angeles to restrict the movements of small planes around the Los Angeles airport. With the changes, the FAA was trying to reduce the chance of a collision over Los Angeles, which has the highest rate of air collisions in the country -- 51 in the Los Angeles basin in 12 months.
Controllers and pilots say the changes may have decreased crowding around Los Angeles, but they made traffic congestion worse around outlying suburban airports and in heavily used jet routes such as Sector 20.
There are 27 airports within 65 miles and 17,500 locally based airplanes. "The change," Hatcher said, "has put the small guy at altitudes through which the jets are descending."
"We're quite concerned, especially those operating out of Ontario and Long Beach," said Dick Russell, a United Airlines pilot who flies in and out of Los Angeles. "They moved the problem from Los Angeles out to there. Those two areas are the hot spots at this time."
Don Early, manager of the FAA's Palmdale control center, concedes that the small airplanes are being "exposed to jet traffic on approach to Los Angeles." He added, "The controllers have expressed some concern that they can't handle the additional workload."
But FAA chief T. Allan McArtor said the change was needed to reduce risk to the traveling public.
Traffic at the Los Angeles airport increased dramatically in the first six months of this year to 388,575 takeoffs or landings, according to FAA records. More airline passengers fly between Los Angeles and San Francisco than fly any other corridor in the country -- 8.7 million compared to 5.1 million on the next heaviest route, between Washington and New York.
Pilots of small planes, angered by the restrictions, sued the FAA in federal court to block the new rule. John L. Baker, president of the Aircraft Owners and Operators Association, which represents 260,000 private pilots, called for the resignation of then-Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole and called the new rule a case of someone in Washington "doing something, even when it is wrong, to give the appearance of being on top of the problem."
The suit challenges an emergency FAA order Aug. 12 that raised the ceiling on restricted airspace around the Los Angeles airport and closed a four-mile-wide, north-south corridor through which private planes could fly without special equipment or radio contact with controllers.
The restricted airspace is a circular area centered over the Los Angeles airport that extends outward for 25 miles. Planes entering this restricted "terminal control area" must be equipped with an altitude-reporting device and have permission from controllers.
But the new rule left many private pilots in a bind.
With the closure of the north-south corridor, the number of requests to enter the restricted zone shot up by 40 percent, the FAA said. At the same time, there weren't enough controllers to handle the increase.
Los Angeles is one area of the country where controller staffing and training lag. Of an average 280 requests a day to enter the zone, only 160 are granted.
"It is extremely awkward for us to give clearance, so awkward that we don't do it," Hatcher said. "The protocol is very elaborate. I myself have never given a clearance."
In addition, pilots say many of them cannot fly over the top of the zone because its new ceiling -- 12,500 feet, raised from 7,000 -- is too high for many single-engine planes without oxygen.
With those routes cut off, the bulk of the small plane traffic has been pushed east over Ontario, Long Beach and other suburbs.
"It's like damming a river," said Scott Raphael, a Los Angeles aviation attorney handling the suit. "The flood doesn't go away, the river makes a new tributary. The traffic doesn't go away, it just goes elsewhere. By diverting it to the eastern edge, they've put it in the most dangerous place."
The controllers joined the suit. Anthony J. Skirlick, president of the local unit of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, contends that four near collisions have occurred in the two months after the airspace was redefined.
Among them is the report of a near collision Oct. 11 between an American Airlines jet and a small plane as the jet was taking off from Ontario airport, 40 miles east of Los Angeles. The American pilot, who averted a collision by making an abrupt climbing turn to the right, estimated that the two planes passed within 50 feet of each other.
It was a close call between an American jet and a small plane Aug. 11 that prompted the FAA to issue the emergency rule. In that incident, the pilot of an American jet flying into the Los Angeles airport was forced to bank sharply and dive to avoid the small plane.
Robert L. Crandall, American Airlines president and chairman, told a convention of air traffic controllers here last week that one-third of the near collisions experienced by his airline in the last 18 months have occurred over Los Angeles -- yet less than 4 percent of American flights originate here.
"If you're looking for an emergency, you've come to the right place," Crandall said. "The skies over southern California are so filled with 'bogies' that they call to mind the combat scenes in 'Top Gun.' "
The airline has asked the FAA to extend the restricted zone so it covers the Ontario airport.
The private pilots want the FAA to reopen the north-south corridor to help relieve congestion.
"This is not a case of a bunch of greedy little airplanes asking for access to airspace with 747s," Raphael said. "This is a case of every knowledgeable aviation group in the country agreeing there is a serious safety hazard created."
McArtor said the agency is working on a plan to create small-plane paths through the restricted area.
"This is not a permanent design. It was not meant to be," he said. But he added that the FAA will not return to the days when small planes were allowed to fly through a corridor without even a radio. Any new route through the restricted airspace will require that small planes be equipped with altitude-reporting devices and be in radio contact with controllers.
McArtor met recently with several pilot groups and worked out a tentative agreement to open two corridors through the restricted area, one for planes flying under 7,000 feet and one for planes above 12,500 feet. If details of the agreement can be worked out, the new routes would be opened Feb. 15.
Not all controllers agree that the skies over Los Angeles are more hazardous now than before the emergency rule. "I felt the change was a good move," said Jay Martin, a senior controller at Palmdale and a private pilot. "It had to be done for pilot education. They had to learn they couldn't mix the Cessnas with the jets."