Risky runways at Newark Airport

November 24, 2009 3:30:08 PM PST
Just when you thought it was safe to fly again, an Eyewitness News investigation uncovers dangerous flight procedures at Newark Airport. They are procedures that some say increase the risk of a crash. A whistleblower's actions have lead to a startling new government report about near collisions. The air traffic controller knew the landing procedures were unsafe, and he wasn't going to stop fighting to get them changed even if it risked his career.

He believed there were lives at stake. It appears now that he was right.

Newark air traffic controller Ray Adams knew instinctively that landing planes on intersecting runways at the same time carried enormous risks, but when the FAA failed to agree, he turned to Eyewitness News to make his case.

"All we're asking for is the FAA to assist us in doing our jobs," he said. "It's our mandate to keep airplanes from colliding."

The two separate landing procedures continued at Newark, as did the close calls.

"I'd say it was real close," air traffic controller Phil Wagner said. "The closest I've ever seen."

Wagner will never forget the day he nearly witnessed two commercial jets collide as they prepared to land on intersecting runways at Newark. Strong winds forced one of the planes to abort its landing, sending it directly into the path of a passenger filled jet landing on the other runway.

"They are heading right for each other at that point," Wagner said.

Fearing the worst, Adams refused to give up. He says the FAA, more focused on capacity than safety, tried to silence him.

"They tried to silence me a couple of different ways," he said. "They made the environment hostile at the control tower for me. They removed me from the building for awhile."

He is finally finding vindication in a just-released Department of Transportation Inspector General investigation. It confirms that the landing on intersecting runways at Newark airport can create "unnecessary flight hazards." The Inspector General also faults the FAA for being "slow to respond."

"The FAA was very slow to respond to Ray Adams, who has been dogged to prevent catastrophe that could have killed hundreds, if not thousands," said New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith.

In response to the Inspector General report, the FAA stopped the one landing procedure immediately. On the other runway, landings are now staggered, but the Office of Special Counsel, which also investigated the matter, blasted the FAA for not going far enough and for allowing "a potential danger to the flying public to persist."

Adams isn't surprised.

"I've learned that change isn't easy to make in the FAA," he said.

The FAA says besides staggering planes on approach, and it also plans to add an automated system that will help air traffic controllers separate planes operating on intersecting runways. The agency plans to start that up on December 14th.

If you have a tip about this or any other issue you'd like investigated, please give our tipline a call at 877-TIP-NEWS. You may also e-mail us at the.investigators@abc.com and follow Jim Hoffer on Twitter at twitter.com/jphoffer.