Monday, January 20, 2014

Federal Aviation Administration Sets New Rules at Busiest Airports: WSJ

Federal air-safety regulators have ordered changes in landing and takeoff procedures at more than a dozen big airports—including seven of the 10 busiest U.S. fields—to reduce the hazards of airborne collisions.

Pilots and air-safety experts support the changes, recommended last summer by the National Transportation Safety Board, but said they could worsen delays at peak times or in bad weather.

Spelled out in Federal Aviation Administration instructions to controllers in the past few weeks, the aim is to stagger takeoffs and landings to ensure safe separations between aircraft simultaneously cleared for takeoff on one runway and those planes arriving on another.

Such aircraft can end up flying intersecting routes if the crew of the landing plane abandons its approach and proceeds to climb away from the strip.

So-called "missed approaches" or "go-arounds" occur for many reasons and are practically impossible to predict, but experts say on average they happen roughly once in every 1,000 flights.

After investigating a total of five such near-midair collisions over the years at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, Las Vegas-McCarran International Airport and Charlotte International Airport, the safety board in July 2013 found the old rules resulted in "hazardous conflicts" and "unnecessary collision risk" because pilots were left without guidance from controllers.

Some of the planes came within 100 feet vertically and 1,000 feet horizontally of each other. Under the new procedures, tower controllers will have to delay issuing takeoff clearances regardless of weather conditions to make sure landing aircraft have touched down or taxied away from any potential conflict.

In addition to those three locations, the FAA orders apply to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and the major airports in Denver, Houston, Boston, Miami, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and a handful of other locations.

Many of the 16 affected airports already have instituted the changes, while others have until February or April to comply.

The FAA's notice to controllers notes that additional airports will come under the revised rules in July. The changes apply to runways that don't actually cross but that are oriented so that the extended centerline of one strip intersects with the other.

The resulting airborne collision hazards weren't "explicitly addressed" by the agency's previous controller safeguards and posed a "hazard to the safe conduct of arrival-departure operations," according to a 2013 report prepared for the FAA by experts from Mitre Corp., a federally-supported research organization.

Last week, the union representing pilots at United Continental Holdings Inc. told its members that FAA controllers are implementing the concept of "an arrival and departure window" to provide adequate separation between planes. While wind direction and other factors could impact their use, "the bottom line is that we can occasionally expect both departure and arrival delays," the bulletin said. It noted that as many as 30 airports are on "the watch list" and ultimately may be impacted. 

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