FAA order on landings, takeoffs scares pilots
By Jon Hilkevitch
Tribune Transportation Writer
April 29, 2000
Pressing to avoid a repeat of last summer's record airline delays, the Federal Aviation Administration issued an order on Friday that would resume a controversial practice at O'Hare International Airport in which planes take off and land simultaneously on crossing runways.
The procedure had been in effect since 1968, but was severely curtailed at O'Hare and at up to 220 other airports early last year after many pilots refused to carry out the maneuver because of safety concerns. It is scheduled to resume May 27.
That, however, is dependent on whether the pilots unions, air-traffic controllers and the airlines can agree that the necessary safeguards will be in place by then during both ordinary conditions and in emergencies, such as when a pilot aborts a landing or loses radio contact.
Because the plane's captain is ultimately responsible for the aircraft and its passengers, he or she has the right to refuse an instruction that might jeopardize their safety.
Under the precisely timed procedure, called a Land and Hold Short Operation (LAHSO), an aircraft is cleared to land but the pilot is instructed to stop short of an intersecting runway where another plane has been cleared for takeoff.
While the FAA and pilots disagree about whether LAHSO increases the risk to passengers, both sides agree the reduced use of the congestion-fighting procedure has played havoc with on-time arrivals and departures.
The airline industry, still smarting from last year's delays and anxious about the upcoming summer travel season, supports LAHSO because it provides a way to increase airport capacity without additional runways. It also helps cut down on fuel consumption that results from planes forced to fly extended holding patterns or to wait on taxiways for long periods.
Critics counter that LAHSO, while maximizing the use of runways, has contributed to an increase in near-collisions on the ground. The FAA, while acknowledging that so-called runway incursions are a growing threat to safety, maintains there is no evidence of a direct connection.
Indeed, no accidents have been blamed on LAHSO, although opponents point to an incident three years ago at O'Hare that could have caused more than 400 deaths. It involved an arriving United Airlines 737 that, due to strong winds, wasn't going to be able to stop before reaching an intersecting runway at O'Hare. The quick work of an O'Hare Tower controller led to the crew of a British Airways 747 aborting their takeoff, braking so hard that six tires on the aircraft blew out.
After restrictions on LAHSO were implemented in April 1999, the arrival rate at O'Hare was cut from 100 planes an hour to 80 planes, according to FAA records. The elimination of LAHSO on O'Hare's main departure and arrival runways, 14 Right and 27 Left, worsened last year's unprecedented delays at the airport, affecting up to several hundred flights a day, officials said.
Airline officials are eager to resume the practice.
"We think the FAA's new order addresses the pilots' concerns and we are looking to get a total buy-in from the pilots," Bill Cotton, manager of air traffic and flight systems at United Airlines, said after a meeting on LAHSO held Friday at O'Hare involving FAA officials, the airlines, pilot unions, air-traffic controllers and the Chicago Department of Aviation.
A number of people who participated in the meeting, however, expressed doubts that the plan could be achieved on such a short timetable.
"In light of the fact that we will be adding 500 flights a day at O'Hare this year, we need every available tool to increase flights. But based on the pilots' very valid concerns, there is no way we can get this done by May 27," said Mike Eagan, a controller and union official at the FAA's TRACON facility in Elgin that directs planes within a 40-mile radius of O'Hare.
To win acceptance, the FAA next week will begin computer modeling that simulates some 10 million possible scenarios and outlines the procedures that pilots must follow to avoid catastrophe when a missed approach during landing occurs.
"Our controllers at O'Hare have been using Land and Hold Short very safely to increase traffic flow for 30 years," said FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro. "We think that when the computer simulations validate the procedures to be followed when a plane goes around (aborts a landing), or for some reason has to leave the runway, that everybody will agree."
O'Hare officials over the past year have anticipated restoration of LAHSO operations by installing special distance lighting, runway markings and other airport visual aids.
"We put our lights in while LAHSO was virtually shut down," said Gilbert Jimenez, spokesman for the Chicago Department of Aviation.
Jimenez added that the 13,000-foot Runway 14 Right, O'Hare's longest, gives pilots 9,800 feet to stop before reaching the intersection with Runway 27 Left.
"Runways at many airports aren't even 9,800 feet long," he said.
Officials at the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents about 50,000 airline pilots in the U.S. and Canada, said they were studying the FAA order and declined to comment. But the pilots union has opposed some of the FAA's earlier attempts to expand LAHSO, including the use of intersecting runways in the rain and at night.
An official of the Allied Pilots Association, which represents pilots at American Airlines, said American's pilots won't be pressured by the FAA's May 27 deadline. The association's MD-80 and Boeing 737 pilots refuse to accept LAHSO requests unless there is at least 8,000 feet of available runway. Before last year, the pilots would perform the operation with 6,000-foot minimums.
"We are for continued safe operations and don't want to do anything to harm that just for economic considerations, which essentially is what LAHSO is all about," said Capt. Jon Jefferies, an American MD-80 pilot and the union's safety chairman at O'Hare.
"We will certainly work with anyone to enhance safety and keep the airport strong," Jefferies said, "but what we really need is more runways."