Thursday, July 17, 2008

FAA Announces Safety Changes After Second Near Miss at JFK

by Conor Greene

In the wake of a second close call between two planes at JFK Airport, the Federal Aviation Administration this week announced steps it’s taking to improve runway safety, including additional lighting and changes to the use of perpendicular runways.

The announcements come after planes nearly collided at the busy airport twice within a week. On July 5, a Cayman Airways plane nearly collided with a departing LAN Chile plane after the pilot aborted the initial landing attempt. According to air traffic controllers, the two planes came within 100 feet of each other. Then, on Friday, an inbound Delta flight from Ireland almost collided with departing Comair Flight 1520, coming within 600-feet vertically and a half-mile horizontally.

The FAA and the airlines have downplayed both incidents, which are based on accounts of air traffic controllers and are still under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. Both involved the use of perpendicular runaways, prompting the FAA last week to change its policy for planes taking off and landing at JFK.

“Severe runway incursions are down,” Acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell told reporters at a press conference announcing the new lighting system. “And, we’re putting technology and procedures in place to keep it that way. We’re making changes on the runway and in the cockpit that are going to make a significant difference.”

The FAA will install lighting systems at 21 major airports around the nation within the next three years that will change colors to signal pilots that it is safe to enter or cross a runway. Much of the attention in recent weeks has focused on perpendicular runways used at JFK, which increase the chances for departing and arriving planes to cross paths.

Sturgell said that officials are still evaluating takeoff and landing procedures and that changes could be made in the future. He said that a preliminary investigation determined that both incident were due to communication issues.

On Tuesday, the Port Authority accused the FAA for failing to provide the authority with details about the recent near misses, according to reports. “It is simply unacceptable for the FAA to keep the local airport operator in the dark when the safety of our passengers and the efficiency of our airports is at stake,” PA Chairman Anthony Coscia and Executive Director Chris Ward wrote in a letter. The authority only learned of the incidents from media reports, according to the New York Post. The PA was also not informed that the FAA had ordered the changes at JFK regarding the use of perpendicular runways, the paper reported.

The incidents have also prompted questions about the airport’s air traffic controllers, whose union says it is understaffed. The FAA is now offering $100,000 bonuses to air traffic controllers working elsewhere around the nation to work in the New York area’s major airports. It is also targeting high school students with campus visits and advertisements on Websites including and By 2011, it is expected that 59 percent of controllers will have less than five years working experience.