FAA Wallowing in Air Travel Blues

"Our pilots are trained to handle any event and our customers were never in danger," the JetBlue statement said. While acknowledging the investigation into the two flights, the airline found that the two instances did not meet the FAA criteria for near misses.

One certainty, however, is an increase in the amount of air traffic in the New York and New Jersey area.

In 2006, the number of passengers flying in the New York and New Jersey area hit a record 104,131,809 -- up 4.3 percent from the 2005 total. Likewise, the number of flights in and out of area airports grew by 2.6 percent to 1,222,408.

Already, the numbers for the first quarter of 2007 show continued growth, with another 3.4 percent increase in the number of passengers through March and a 7.1 percent spike in the number of flights.

"We anticipate that to continue not only over the next year but over the next 15 years," said Marc La Vorgna, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. "We see the numbers continuing to skyrocket."

On Monday the NTSB released an advisory announcing that a runway incursion in which two aircraft may have come within 50 feet of one another on intersecting runways at San Francisco International Airport late last month is under investigation.

According to the advisory, the air traffic controller, "forgetting about the arrival airplane," cleared an outgoing flight to take off from a runway that intersected with a flight that was about to land.

In that incident, the flight that landed had to immediately take off again to avoid a plane that had been stopped in the middle of an intersecting runway after an air traffic controller told the pilot to hold. The near collision was categorized by the FAA as an operational error.

Barbarello, the spokesman for the air traffic controllers' union, said that because of staffing shortages, employees are working up to four hours straight in some circumstances. "They're tired," he said.

There were 330 runway incursions in the United States last year, 31 of them serious. Comparatively, the number of incursions so far in 2007 is down -- with just 11 reported serious incidents compared to 21 for the same period last year, according to the FAA.

The FAA has considered many possible ways to deal with the problem and already approved the use of a GPS map system in cockpits to show pilots where their aircraft is on an airfield.

On Friday a computer glitch in the nation's air traffic control system caused flight delays and cancellations up and down the East Coast, the FAA confirmed. The computer was fixed by 11 a.m., an FAA spokesman said, but the impact of the problem dragged deep into the evening.

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