Safety dispute could trigger flight delays
By Jon Hilkevitch
Tribune Transportation Writer
May 25, 2000
Just days before the Federal Aviation Administration was set to invoke a procedure aimed at speeding operations at O'Hare International and other major airports, the nation's largest pilots union Wednesday urged its members to boycott the practice until their grievances over safety are resolved.
Hours later, the FAA postponed its plan to implement the changes scheduled to take effect nationwide Saturday. Instead, the agency extended the existing program governing expedited landings and takeoffs, hoping pilots would continue using the controversial procedure until the safety issues could be addressed.
But the FAA's gambit, which followed a breakdown in talks with the pilots this week, may have failed.
The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents 58,000 pilots at 50 U.S. and Canadian airlines, said Wednesday night that it "unconditionally rejected" the FAA's last-minute overture.
Although it is unclear how many pilots will actually honor the boycott, Chris Blum, a regional air traffic manager for the FAA, said any dropoff in the use of the procedure would mean delays at O'Hare.
Several weeks before the Saturday deadline, the pilots union had left open the possibility that an agreement could be reached, averting the prospect of mounting delays at O'Hare as well as at airports in Boston, Miami, New York, Philadelphia and St. Louis.
The pilots contend that testing already under way validating the safety of the cross-runway procedure must be completed first. FAA officials say the changes are designed to make more widespread use of an operation has been in place for more than 30 years without a fatal accident. Despite today's congested airfields, there is no reason to discontinue it, the FAA said.
The stalemate could not have occurred at a worse time-on the eve of the Memorial Day weekend marking the start of the busy summer travel season, when delays are already likely due to the high volume of passengers.
The anticipated loss of the air-traffic tool, which boosts airport capacity by directing planes to take off and land simultaneously on intersecting runways, is expected to have the greatest impact at O'Hare. During favorable weather, the procedure, called a Land And Hold Short Operation (LAHSO), is performed on about a quarter of the 2,500 flights at the airport each day.
FAA officials have said up to 20 fewer flights an hour would be able to get in and out of O'Hare on time without LAHSO.
The announcement of the boycott, however, may not be felt at O'Hare until Thursday, at the earliest. High winds Wednesday prevented controllers at O'Hare tower from asking pilots to perform the maneuver.
Coupled with weather problems on the East Coast, United reported delays of more than two hours during the evening rush at O'Hare. American Airlines reported delays averaging an hour, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation.
FAA officials, meanwhile, said they would instruct controllers to continue asking pilots to accept LAHSO takeoffs and landings.
"From our point of view, LAHSO has been voluntary all along and will continue that way," said FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro. "The procedure is safe, so we don't see the need to halt it."
A spokeswoman for United Airlines said it was too early to assess what will happen. "We will continue to try to bring diverse parties together to find solutions that work," said Wendi Parson.
Some airline pilots interviewed Wednesday at O'Hare said they would abide by the union's recommendation. Many said they already decline when asked to perform the voluntary LAHSO procedure, explaining that the risk of being unable to stop their aircraft before the intersection with the crossing runway isn't worth jeopardizing their livelihood or the lives of their passengers.
"We don't like delays any more than the passengers do," said a first officer for American. "But the reason I'm being paid big bucks is to stay well within what I feel are the appropriate margins of safety."
Chicago aviation officials agreed that more pilots would refuse to perform the operation, and that delays would likely occur.
"Because of the nature of unionism, an increased number of pilots probably will follow the recommendation of their collective-bargaining unit and refuse to do LAHSO," said Gilbert Jimenez, the city's director of communications at O'Hare. "We at the airport hope that common sense will prevail and the pilots, who know it is a safe procedure, will continue to use LAHSO at their own discretion."
The pilots union's president, Capt. Duane Woerth, however, said, "The FAA's approach is flawed." Woerth said the agency is pushing ahead with LAHSO before completing tests to ensure the highest level of safety.
"The essence of the existing LAHSO procedure is that it takes two airplanes that are on ... two intersecting runways, aims them at each other and trusts that the system will keep them from actually colliding," Woerth said.
The FAA testing, which includes using computer simulations, began earlier this month and is expected to continue for at least several weeks. The findings will then be presented to pilots, who may then request additional training or further refinement of LAHSO regarding emergency situations, called rejected-landing procedures.
John Mazor, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, said the FAA's preliminary results have already revealed serious problems with the runway procedure, "indicating an even more urgent need for a more robust analysis to find out what the risks are."