Near collision at Newark Airport

Eyewitness News' Investigators
January 17, 2008 4:15:42 PM PST
There was another close call at an area airport Wednesday, this time at Newark International. Authorities say two planes landing at intersecting runways came within 600 feet of each other.

The Investigators' Jim Hoffer has more.

What happened here is called a loss of separation, which is aviation-speak for a close call. And it's the second one at Newark in as many months, another warning sign perhaps of an over-burdened system.

The FAA says the loss of separation occurred shortly after 2 p.m. A Continental Boeing 737 was on a final approach to runway 4-right, a little more than a mile from the runway. That's when a Jetlink Express flew across runway 4, into the path of the 737. The FAA says the planes came 1 1/4 mile horizontally, and only 600 feet vertically from colliding.

"Anytime two aircraft are that close in proximity to each other, it's a dangerous situation just based upon the speed that the aircrafts are moving," air traffic controller Ray Adams said.

What heightened the danger in this case was that the Jetlink Express had no way of communicating with the Newark tower, because approach control on Long Island had given the pilot the frequency for Teterboro Airport instead of Newark.

FAA spokesman Jim Peters says the agency is investigating an operational error in Newark's airspace, adding that because of the mistaken frequency, "Newark air traffic control was not in contact with the Jetlink flight as it approached the airport."

"Since the one aircraft was not in communication with the control tower, this increased the danger of the operation," Adams said. "The controller would not able to issue instructions to that aircraft to avoid a conflict or collision."

The planes did miss each other, but had gotten closer than FAA regulations allow. Last May, there were at least three close calls in one month at Newark, as well as another one in December. This latest one has one senator wondering how many warning signs does it take before something is done.

"The already congested airspace in the New York/New Jersey area, it makes this a very dangerous environment," New Jersey Senator Bob Menedez said. "And so I am seriously concerned."

The air traffic controller working this incident has taken temporary leave, apparently quite shaken by how close these two planes got. The FAA is conducting interviews and reviewing air traffic control communications to determine how the one pilot ended up with the wrong airport frequency.