Image: Coming and going
Jeff Chiu  /  AP file
The vast majority of go-arounds are the result of congestion at major airports, where planes often land and depart every two minutes during peak times.
updated 7/3/2008 12:44:04 PM ET 2008-07-03T16:44:04

A United Airlines jetliner was coming in for a landing at the Las Vegas airport in 2006 when the tower radioed that a smaller plane was still crossing the runway.

So the United pilot executed a “go-around,” a routine maneuver in which an incoming plane pulls up at the last minute and circles around. But the jet suddenly found itself on a collision course with an American Airlines plane taking off from an intersecting runway.

The United crew took a hard right turn, the American flight veered off in the other direction, and disaster was averted. But the near-collision offered a frightening vision of what can happen during a go-round at the nation’s congested airports.

An Associated Press review of tower logs and summaries from eight of the nation’s busiest airports, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, found more than 1,500 go-arounds during the last six months of 2007 alone.

Go-arounds haven’t been blamed for any crashes or midair collisions involving commercial airliners over the past three decades, according to a review of National Transportation Safety Board records. Still, there have been some close calls, and controllers worry that without more safeguards, a deadly accident is going to happen.

“We can go 99 percent of the time and not have a problem. But it only takes one,” said John Wallin, president of the air traffic controllers union at Memphis.

In a small number of cases, go-arounds are prompted by “runway incursions” — instances in which taxiing planes or ground vehicles blunder onto a runway in use. However, the vast majority of go-arounds are the result of congestion at major airports, where planes often land and depart every two minutes during peak times.

“We’re trained in that maneuver, so it’s not a tense situation,” said Ralph Paduano, a commercial pilot for more than 20 years who now flies for Continental. “But you have to really be on the ball; you can’t be complacent about it.”

Some controllers want the Federal Aviation Administration to take extra precautions such as staggering arriving flights and not using crisscross runways simultaneously.

The FAA said that it is looking at its procedures on a case-by-case basis — and has altered or abandoned some practices — but that the public is in no immediate danger.

In recent months, federal authorities have investigated go-around procedures at three of the nation’s busiest hubs:

  • Newark Liberty International Airport, where three runways intersect at the northeast corner of the airport and planes often have to be sent around when two of them approach intersecting runways at the same time;
  • Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, where a go-around procedure was discontinued this spring after air traffic controllers warned it was putting planes directly into the path of planes taking off from another runway;
  • Memphis International Airport, where changes were made last year after an arriving Northwest Airlines DC-9 flew close to a commuter plane that had been forced to go around because of a mechanical problem.

At Memphis, east-west Runway 27 runs perpendicular to north-south runways 18L, 18C and 18R and is used during peak periods. After the close call in February 2007, the FAA ordered the airport to stop using all four runways simultaneously.

The practice has since resumed, though Memphis controllers now use software called Converging Runway Display Aid that employs a computer-generated “ghost target” to project where the flight paths will cross.

That didn’t prevent an incident on June 11 in which a commuter jet executed a go-around on Runway 27 and was forced to stay low while an incoming jet landing on Runway 18R — a north-south runway not covered by the CRDA — passed overhead, Wallin said. Wallin said the planes were about 800 feet apart — not a violation of FAA rules, but scary.

The Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency that handles whistleblower complaints, said it is reviewing a report on the Memphis runway procedure. In an e-mail to The Associated Press, the FAA said it is satisfied with the changes it made last year and has “found no safety issues” with the procedure.

At Newark, almost half of the nearly 300 go-arounds between last August and January arose from runway “ties,” in which two planes approach intersecting runways at the same time.

Controllers at Newark have been pushing the FAA to change its procedures so that arrivals for those runways are sent at staggered intervals by the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control, or TRACON, center on Long Island, which guides Newark-bound planes down to an altitude of 3,000 feet before turning them over to the Newark tower.

Staggering planes relieves pressure on controllers to keep the aircraft out of each other’s way, said Ray Adams, vice president of the controllers union at the airport.

“You have about eight miles, or about two minutes, to figure it out and make it work” after TRACON hands off the arrivals, Adams said. “It comes down to how busy you are and what your skill level is. You have to make some serious moves pretty early to get the sequence to work out.”

The FAA said it is examining the safety of the runway configuration at the request of the Transportation Department’s inspector general. But it said it has not “found evidence of excessive risk that would call for us to stop using the operation.”

In Detroit, two east-west runways form a latticework with four runways that run diagonally northeast to southwest. When one of the four was closed for repairs last year, controllers were instructed to land more planes on east-west Runway 27L.

The problem was, when a plane had to execute a go-around on 27L, it would be heading directly toward the takeoff corridor for planes departing on Runway 22L.

“It puts two aircraft in harm’s way, and that’s unacceptable,” said Vince Sugent, head of the air traffic controllers union at the airport.

The FAA said the practice has been discontinued based on the recommendations made by its Air Traffic Safety Office.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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