Factors underlying the runway collision at Los Angeles International Airport in which 34 people died stretch far beyond a single error by a distracted, overworked air traffic controller.
They extend to broken radar, communications problems, short-staffing in control towers and money sidetracked by the U.S. budget deficit, aviation experts say."The infrastructure of the aviation system is being held up by Band-Aids," said R. Steve Bell, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Union. "If you can't fix the system so that it works, you've got to slow it down. And no one wants to hear it."
However, the Feb. 1 crash in Los Angeles, which came just two months after another runway collision killed eight people in Detroit, apparently has caught Washington's attention.
On Thursday, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, James B. Busey, proposed a $50 million plan to help prevent runway collisions, with the money coming from a $7.6 billion fund originally intended to pay for airport capital projects.
That fund has been tied up by the federal budget deficit and used to bankroll operating expenses.
The crash has raised questions of whether the workload was too heavy in the tower. In the seven minutes before the crash, the controller handled 15 planes amid a flurry of distractions.
Among the distractions: The controller had to repeat messages to an AeroMexico jet, one Wings West plane lost communication with the tower because it accidentally switched frequencies, and controllers were searching for paperwork for another Wings West plane.
In the moments before the crash, the controller lost track of the taxiing Wings West plane with the missing paperwork and mistook it for the Skywest plane, which was on the runway. Thinking the runway was clear, though her view apparently was unimpaired, she cleared the jet to land.
Aviation experts said controllers who face such busy times can sometimes turn to an assistant controller for help, but this option was unavailable to the Los Angeles controller.