Thursday, July 10, 2008

Two Planes Nearly Collide Over JFK


By Patricia Adams

Air traffic controllers at both JFK Tower and New York Tracon used the word 'ugly' to describe the near miss of two planes over JFK on Saturday night. A spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controller’s Association (NATCA) New York-JFK tower facility, Barrett Byrnes, said in a statement Monday, “One Tracon controller said it was the ugliest go-around they had seen in 24 years on the job."

The events have still not been confirmed and a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board is expected by the end of this week or early next week. But air traffic controllers insist that there was a near midair collision at JFK. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a Cayman Airlines flight was landing at the airport as another plane was preparing to leave. Cayman Airlines flight 792, a Boeing 737-300, needed to circle back around after a missed approach, as it was about 300 feet off the ground, but just as that was happening, a Linea Aeroea Navional de Chile flight 533, Boeing 767-300, was beginning to take off on a perpendicular runway.

The FAA reported that when air traffic controllers realized that the two flights were heading toward each other, orders were given for them to turn in opposite directions. The NATCA says the orders to turn came “too late,” and as a result “the paths of both jets crossed.”

Preliminary FAA radar data has put the two planes no more than a half mile apart horizontally and 300 feet vertically at their closest proximity, however, air traffic controllers maintain it was closer than that. NATCA claimed the two planes were approximately 100 feet apart. Controllers say that using perpendicular runways simultaneously is common at Kennedy and a number of other airports nationwide, and this near miss shows why the practice should be prohibited.

Despite the fact that most air traffic experts agree on the fact that perpendicular runway use is a problem, experts are also quick to identify other issues at the core of near miss incidents, such as Saturday’s. According to reports released by the Department of the Transportation Inspector-General, inexperienced air traffic controllers are a growing problem due to the rising number of retiring controllers and the scramble by the FAA to train and hire new ones. In fact, the FAA expects to replace nearly its entire workforce over the next decade.

Reports say that although the FAA caps the number of controllers who can be in training at a given site to 35 percent, 22 percent of the coutry's facilities do not adhere to that limit, and the Inspector-General’s office has questioned whether the limit is too high to begin with. The NATCA is insistent that the turnovers mean too many inexperienced employees will be directing traffic, perhaps dangerously, across the skies. The union said the FAA job openings illustrate just how dire the situation is to appeal to those with more experience.

"It's a sign of desperation that staffing is so bad at these facilities that the FAA has to offer such an outrageously high sum of money instead of negotiating a reasonable and logical solution to the mess it has created," said Patrick Forrey, president of the National Air Traffic Controller's Association, in a statement on Wednesday. Evidence of the push for hiring in New York, the FAA in January, was offering air traffic controllers $27,000 for relocation. In addition, those willing to commit to a three year assignment would get a bonus of up to $25,000. Seven months down the line, however, the bonuses have gotten even better, further supporting the theory that the FAA is desperate to recruit experienced workers. For those signing on by July 8 there would still be the $27,000 for relocating, but a four-year commitment would yield a $75,000 incentive bonus.

The FAA job posting makes it clear; the salary for air traffic controller specialists in the New York area who are responsible for ensuring "the safe, orderly, and expeditious flow of air traffic" ranges from $98,814 to $137,732 per year. The NATCA union claims that the New York facility has lost 13 percent of its certified controllers in the past two years and has not brought on any certified controllers since September 2006. As a consequence of the shortage in air traffic control personnel, passengers will also feel the crunch. Fewer people in control towers will bring on the slowing down of traffic overall and lead to delays on the runways.

To check the preliminary findings of the National Transportation Safety Board in this investigation, go to their website at