FAA responds to near collision at Newark Airport

Eyewitness News' Investigators
February 4, 2009 6:13:56 PM PST
There are new developments Friday in a near collision that happened at Newark Airport earlier this week. On Thursday, we reported exclusively about two passenger planes that came within 600 feet of each other. Now, the FAA met to discuss the close call.

The Investigators' Jim Hoffer, who broke the story, has more on what the FAA decided.

The FAA says the landing procedure at the center of Wednesday's close call is perfectly safe. But air traffic controllers tell us the operation places capacity over safety.

The landing procedure is an operation air traffic controllers have been asking the FAA to change for a long time.

During certain weather conditions, planes on approach to Newark from the west must fly over the airport's main runways in a wide turn to line up for landing on runway 29.

In doing so, the planes cross air traffic from the south as those planes set up to land on the main runway. The air traffic control union says this leaves little margin for error.

"These aircraft are directly in conflict with each other, with not a whole lot of time for a controller to take action," air traffic controller Ray Adams said.

In Wednesday's close call, communication was lost when a regional controller mistakenly gave a pilot the wrong frequency. The planes came within 600 feet and 1 1/4 mile from colliding.

But air traffic control experts we spoke to say frequency errors are routine, especially in Newark's complicated air space, where there's a constant crossing of traffic. It's why they say landing and take-off procedures need to leave a wide cushion of safety.

"We don't have to wait for an incident to take place," New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez said. "We should be looking at those procedures right now."

An FAA spokesperson, in a statement to Eyewitness News, says, "We have reviewed the procedure, as we do in the investigation of any operational error or pilot deviation." It goes to to add that, "That does not indicate that we believe the procedure is unsafe. We are continuing to use the procedure."

But air traffic controllers insist it's a risky landing operation.

"This approach was designed many years ago to work with turbo prop planes, which were much slower and much more maneuverable," Adams said. "And right now, we're doing it with jet aircraft and much higher speeds and much less maneuverable."

One solution to this is to redesign the airspace, but whenever the FAA starts talking about that, there's usually an outcry and a threat of court injunctions from impacted neighborhoods.