FAA says changes cut risk of O'Hare collisions

September 26, 2012 - 3:35 PM

CHICAGO (AP) — New air traffic control procedures have been put in place at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport to try to eliminate the risk of midair collisions over a pair of runways, after two near misses last year raised serious concerns, federal officials said Wednesday.

The planes involved in the incidents, which occurred three months apart in 2011, came within a few hundred feet of each other, according to a preliminary report released this week by the National Transportation Safety Board. No one was hurt, but the crew of one of the planes had to delay their takeoff and stay low to avoid a collision even though they were rapidly approaching the end of the runway.

Revised procedures put in place since last year include the extension of a warning system to automatically alert controllers if a plane is approaching to land on one of the runways as an aircraft is taking off on the other, the Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday. The runways fall short of physically intersecting, but are close enough that air traffic can cross paths in takeoffs and landings.

The two air traffic controllers responsible for the runways also are now seated beside each other so they can better communicate. And a work station for supervisors that was located in the center of the control tower has been removed after controllers complained it obstructed their view and forced them to yell vital information across the room.

In a statement, the FAA said safety was the agency's top priority and it "moved swiftly to develop measures that would eliminate similar occurrences." There have been no similar incidents since then, it said.

The first of the near misses, on May 16, 2011, involved a SkyWest Airlines plane en route from Michigan approaching one runway and an ExpressJet Airlines jet taking off on the other runway for Buffalo, N.Y.

The ExpressJet captain told investigators his plane began roaring down a runway when he heard a distressed air traffic controller make a "grunting uhh" sound. Seconds later, the captain saw the landing SkyWest plane heading straight for his and frantically told his co-pilot to "stay low."

After the danger passed and he regained his composure, the captain radioed the tower after "nearly getting killed" and screamed at the air traffic controller, "What the (expletive) was that?" according to the NTSB report. The controller responded, "Sorry about that."

The other near miss took place Aug. 8, 2011. A Chautauqua Airlines flight from La Crosse, Wis., was landing and nearly struck a Trans State Airlines flight taking off for Moline, in western Illinois.

The Trans State's pilot said he and his co-pilot spotted the incoming plane themselves but it was too late to abort their takeoff and their plane was "running out of pavement." Had they not taken evasive action on their own by slightly delaying takeoff, the warning from the tower might "have been too late," the captain told investigators.

The FAA's changes also include new guidelines on when to order an aircraft to abort its final approach and circle the airport, and controllers will get additional simulator training for handling such situations. To assist the controllers, an additional monitor will listen for clearances for both runways.

Aircraft taking off on one of the runways are now issued "line up and wait" orders before receiving final takeoff clearance.

Work under way to modernize O'Hare eventually will eliminate the problem by reconfiguring crisscrossing runways into a more efficient parallel layout.