Pilots reject landing plan

May 25, 2000


Citing safety concerns, the nation's largest pilots union urged its members Wednesday to refuse to perform delay-reducing landing procedures for the foreseeable future.

The move raises fears that air travelers will face big delays during one of the busiest weekends of the year.

"That tool allows us to land and depart airplanes very quickly," said Craig Burzych, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association at O'Hare Airport. "If we lose it, the efficiency of the airport is going to suffer greatly."

The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents 58,000 pilots at 50 North American carriers, including United, TWA and Delta, advised members to immediately begin refusing "land-and-hold-short operations" until the Federal Aviation Administration addresses safety concerns surrounding aborted landings.

The procedure involves a plane landing on a runway that intersects with another runway, where planes are simultaneously departing. The landing aircraft is supposed to "hold short" of the intersection. The procedures, which are heavily used at O'Hare, allow air traffic controllers to process more aircraft.

The landing procedures, which are voluntary, can double departure rates, Burzych said, adding there hasn't been a major incident because of them in 30 years of use.

The FAA wanted to expand the practice to general aviation and foreign flights and to dozens more airports, starting Saturday. The industry and the agency had until then to draft and test guidelines that would be used when a pilot aborts a landing and then has to avoid hitting a departing plane. The FAA said the procedures would be halted at any airport that hasn't completed the testing by then.

O'Hare controllers predicted serious delays without an extension, which the FAA finally granted Wednesday.

But delays now are possible anyway because of the pilots' action. The union is upset that the FAA hasn't "adequately" tested the aborted-landing guidelines, although the agency has heeded other pilot demands dealing with training and minimum landing distances, said union spokesman John Mazor.

Chris Blum, the FAA's manager of the local air traffic division, said the FAA intends to conduct more simulations to address concerns over the procedures.

One source in the aviation industry suggested that the pilots' motivations were less about safety and driven more by anger at the FAA for "stepped-up enforcement of penalties" when they foul up the procedure. The union denies that.

At O'Hare alone, which can see up to 600 land-and-hold-short arrivals a day, 1.2 million travelers are expected between today and Tuesday, officials said.

"We just don't know to what extent we're going to lose the procedure," said Chicago Aviation Department spokesman Gil Jimenez. "Despite the union's recommendations, obviously some pilots will exercise their judgment that it's safe to proceed."