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November 27th, 2009
06:00 AM ET

Newark runway risks concern feds

By Allan Chernoff
CNN Sr. Correspondent

(CNN) - Federal investigators are concerned a potential danger persists because of the simultaneous use of intersecting runways at Newark Liberty International Airport, one of the nation's busiest and a gateway to the New York metro area.

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="The FAA says it intends to have new technology fully operational at Newark by mid-December."]

The alert comes after repeated instances in which planes above the Newark airport flew too close to each other in violation of safety standards. There were four such instances last year and at least four this year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general.

In one case, on January 16, 2008, two Continental planes - a Boeing B-737 and an Embraer 145 - missed each other by 600 feet, according to a DOT inspector general's report.

"That was very scary. I was there for that one personally in the control tower, and it scared the heck out of everybody up there," said Ray Adams, a Newark air traffic controller.

Potential danger arises when approaching planes need to abort their landings, which happens about every 700 flights at Newark, according to a Federal Aviation Administration analysis.

In what the FAA calls "go-arounds," the diverted plane approaching Newark has to make a sharp right turn through the flight path of planes landing and taking off from an intersecting runway, allowing little margin for error.

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Filed under: Airline safety
soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. William Gaunt

    Mr. Merritt:
    The problem is far more complex than that. Basically, you are using 2 runways which intersect. The rules state that aircraft can nether overfly each other or meet (collide) at the intersection. Most accidents are the result of a long series of smaller happenings. The same principle applies here. Once airplanes receive clearance to fly through this crossing point, there is no suitable corrective action which will prevent this. The best that can happen is that aircraft which are supposed to miss by at least 3 miles horizontally or 1,000 feet vertically end up missing by as little as 50 feet horizontally or tens of feet vertically. The worst that can happen is that they hit at the point where the paths cross.

    Simultaneous use of crossing runways can be effective use of resources but it involves the subjective judgment of the controller. Should anything go wrong with that judgment, like radio frequency congestion or other distraction, there is no suitable alternate plan to avoid the pending situation. Once the clearance is given by the controller, there is no out.

    Naturally, managers are task with maximum utilization of resources so they encourage (pressure) controllers to make these calls as close and as often as possible thereby keeping delays to a minimum. Controllers who err on the side of safety are punished by lower performance ratings while those who err on the side of expediency suffer minimum punishment and are often rewarded with higher performance ratings and pay raises.

    Fixing this problem will involve reducing airport capacity during peak demand periods. That is not acceptable to the airlines who have higher FAA officials in their pockets. Bottom line is fix the problem without diminishing airport capacity. This along with the FAA attitude that you are either part of the solution or you are part of the problem are at loggerheads and safety concerns get lost in the ensuing battles.

    November 30, 2009 at 10:19 am |
  2. T. Mes

    Re the war – to put Charlie Wrangle and taxation in the same breath is beyond outrageous! We have been there before – "a one time tax for the war", a tax which then never goes away and most of the money would be wasted on pork as usual and never get to the war effort. Why don't the politicians step up to the plate first, by example? It is very easy to waste the tax payer's money whilst all that they, the politicians contribute, is more hot air!

    November 30, 2009 at 8:35 am |
  3. John Merritt

    First I don't understand the 'No Way Out" headline on the front page anymore than how it applies to this article. From what it sounds, they have a bigger problem coming in than they do leaving. With the money granted to the airports around the country early this year, I don't understand how some of that did not reach the Newark Airport Authority so they could improve their systems. Sometimes there are no rhymes, reasons nor rationales for some decisions made, or not.

    November 29, 2009 at 6:04 pm |
  4. Irene W. Dowdell

    I fell the Secret Service people who allowed those people in the
    dinner should be gotten rid of and not ever used again.

    Obviously they are not qualified to safeguard the President of
    the United States.

    November 28, 2009 at 7:31 am |

    I am shocked to hear about this risk. All my family members fly in and out of Newark airport. My sincere thanks to Ray Adams and to CNN for bringing this to attention of viewers!

    I wonder why the diverted planes approaching Newark always have to make that sharp right turn, eventually landing westwards – and intersecting the path of airplanes landing southwards or taking off northwards. Could the diverted planes approaching Newark not use the opposite side of that "intersecting" runway by making a left turn, and landing eastwards? Wouldn’t they avoid the “problem” intersection altogether in that case?

    November 28, 2009 at 2:38 am |
  6. William Gaunt

    After having spent a 33 year career both as a controller and a manager with the FAA, I can say without equivocation that anyone who believes that the FAA is straight forward and above board about the Newark incidents and subsequent disciplinary action against a whistle blower is too naive to be a reporter.

    November 27, 2009 at 3:16 pm |
  7. R Luke

    Same old problem, the FAA, because it’s bureaucratic structure is so ingrained, cannot react until something catastrophic happens, and then they over react, but always after the damage has been done. Both the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), that investigated accidents, and the air traffic controllers have accused FAA of not implementing corrective action and new technology in a timely manner. FAA is reactive, not pro-active in their mission and needs to be changed. Right now, FAA writes the rules, executes the rules and for the most part enforces the rules. It is all too easy for them to protect their bureaucracy through simply not acting upon problem areas. There needs to be an oversight board to plan and execute the needs of the flying public including air traffic control. This board would operate those functions of FAA that involve the movement and control of aircraft at airports and in the air. It should consist of members of the major airspace users, Airline Transport Association, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, Airline Pilots Association, etc. With the backing of airspace users, it could be more pro-active in planning the future needs and utilizing current technologies to best serve the flying public. In the government scheme of things, it needs to be placed under the Department of Transportation on a level equal to FAA. Since air traffic is a service, who is better qualified to know what are the needs of aviation than those being served. NTSB should have the investigative authority over all accidents including system errors and system deviations. NTSB should also have the authority to force FAA to make critical rule changes in a specified time frame.
    Another reason for removing air traffic control from FAA and placing under a board of airspace users is that there always has been a confliction in the mental attitude between ATC and FAA. Air traffic controllers have been trained extensively to make split second decisions and make them work. There is no margin for error. Failure is not an option. FAA on the other hand is slow to react, puts out memorandums that are one size fits all and their attitude toward air traffic controllers is one that displays ignorance of the ins and outs of the day-to-day tasks that controllers handle. While the controllers are sometimes pushed to their limits, FAA is worried whether they are “crossing their T’s and dotting their I’s. The bottom line is that air traffic control mentality and bureaucracy don’t mix and never will. The system needs to be brought up to date and FAA, by their very nature cannot do it.

    November 27, 2009 at 12:21 pm |
  8. john

    Been going on for years but NOW the FAA is doing something about it?!?!

    November 27, 2009 at 12:06 pm |
  9. Hank Mendenhall

    It is time for everyone, including the news organizations to begin a campaign against the lies and deceit that have existed for too long in our Government. A good place to start is with the people at FAA that blew off Mr. Adams when he first issued a concern over this situation, those involved in reprimanding him, and those involved in lying about the new system being operational. People need to be identified by name, and fired! It's time to hold individuals and not organizations accountable to the public and the courts for their actions. Until that happens, the lying and deceit will continue and our lack of trust in our Government will continue.

    November 27, 2009 at 8:52 am |