NTSB examines close call at JFK

July 8, 2008 7:19:13 PM PDT
The National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday it is investigating a near collision of two airborne jetliners at Kennedy Airport in New York over the weekend.The NTSB said initial reports indicate Cayman Airways Flight 792, a Boeing 737-300, and LAN Chile Flight 533, a Boeing 767-300, almost collided on Saturday at 8:36 p.m. EDT.

Federal Aviation Administration officials said Monday the planes came no closer than 300 feet vertically and no more than a half-mile horizontally. But air traffic controllers said the planes came within 100 feet vertically and there was no observable distance horizontally between them, sending the controllers scrambling to put the planes on divergent headings.

The FAA defines a near airborne collision as an incident in which aircraft come within less than 500 feet of each other.

At the time, the Cayman flight was executing a routine "go around" - an aborted landing that can be initiated by the pilot or by the control tower, usually during periods of heavy congestion - while the Chilean plane was departing from a nearby runway.

"Tower controllers intervened to attempt to resolve the conflict, assigning both aircraft diverging headings," NTSB said.

"The closest proximity of the two aircraft has not yet been determined."

A spokesman for Cayman Airways said the company is disputing the classification of the incident as a near airborne collision.

"We're treating it as a non-issue," said Olson Anderson, the airline's vice president of flight operations.

According to Anderson, the pilot of Flight 792 said the plane's Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System, or TCAS, did not issue a warning. TCAS analyzes the projected flight path of approaching aircraft to alert pilots to potential collisions.

But Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said the three controllers in Westbury, N.Y., who observed the incident told him they saw the two planes converge from two blips to a single blip on their radar.

The planes "passed on top of each other ... There was nothing discernible in terms of any space," Church said. "It sank the hearts of every one of them. It was something they had never seen in 70 combined years of experience."

The Boeing 737-300 typically seats 125 passengers and the 767-300 typically seats 218, said Boeing spokeswoman Liz Verdien.

The board said a preliminary report on the incident is expected later this week.

Over the last few months, federal authorities have investigated go-around procedures at airports in Newark, Memphis and Detroit, all of which use intersecting runways similar to JFK's. Controllers claim these procedures can put a plane performing a go-around directly in the path of a plane taking off on an intersecting runway.

The FAA has changed some of the procedures and said the public is in no immediate danger.

Saturday's incident isn't the first time controllers have complained about what they say was a near collision involving the same intersecting runways at Kennedy. In December 2007, controllers and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said a cargo jet and a commuter jet nearly collided after one of the pilots decided to abort a landing. The FAA said at the time that it had reviewed radar data and the two jets were never in danger.