Planes half mile apart

The US National Travel Safety Board has determined in a preliminary investigation that Cayman Airways and LAN Chile planes were half a mile apart in an incident that air traffic controllers in New York described as an ugly mid-air near-collision.

The report states that the closest proximity of the two aircraft was slightly over half a mile laterally and 200 feet vertically – 100 feet nearer than the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) originally stated, based on radar data.

On 5 July at 8.36pm Eastern Daylight time, controllers at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York recorded what its staff association described as an ugly and scary near-collision.

Cayman Airways flight 792, a Boeing 737-300, was making a routine go-around – an aborted landing after which the pilot banks into the sky for a second attempt – when a tower controller ordered the flight to turn right to avoid a collision with Linea Aerea Nacional de Chile flight 533, a Boeing 767-300, which was about to take off at a perpendicular runway.

‘Tower controllers intervened to attempt to resolve the conflict, assigning both aircraft diverging headings,” said the NTSB, an independent federal agency charged by Congress with investigating every civil aviation incident in the United States.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association estimated the planes came within 100 feet of each other, and according to a press release it issued following the incident; one controller described it as the ugliest go-around they had seen in 24 years on the job.

However, Cayman Airways, LAN Chile and the Federal Aviation Administration all denied a near-collision had taken place.

Following the incident, the FAA stated that radar data showed the flights were 300 feet apart vertically and more than half a mile horizontally. The average distance between planes at the airport is about 1,000 feet vertically and three miles horizontally.

A second close call at the airport on Friday has prompted changes to how air traffic controllers sequence plane arrivals and departures, leaving a bigger margin of safety, the Federal Aviation Administration announced on Friday, and further changes to landing and take-off procedures are likely.

On Friday afternoon, Delta Flight Boeing 757 from Shannon, Ireland, making a go-around intersected the path of a smaller Comair jet taking off on a perpendicular runway.

Acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell said on Monday that a preliminary investigation found that both incidents were due to communication problems.

Meanwhile, in Cayman, the former CEO of Cayman Airways, Mike Adam, weighed in on the controversy surrounding the CAL near-collision, criticising the government and the Civil Aviation Authority for not reassuring the public about the safety of the airline.

In a press release that described him as a potential UDP candidate for the 2009 general election, Mr. Adam said: ‘This incident has been reported in media both locally and internationally but to date there has not been any sign of re-assurance to the general public. The only response we have had so far is to deny that the incident took place at all’.

He added that he expected that the Civil Aviation Authority of the Cayman Islands to eventually issue a statement so the public could maintain confidence in the airline.

‘The simultaneous landing and takeoff traffic patterns for these perpendicular runways at JFK International Airport has been a bone of contention between the NATCA and the FAA for a number of years,’ he said.

‘The management and staff at Cayman Airways are highly qualified to handle such situations and I am sure that the public can be reassured that the required safety measures are in place’, Mr. Adam said.

Jeremy Jackson, Director of Air Navigation Services Regulation of the Civil Aviation Authority said it had considered putting out a statement following reports of the near-collision, but decided against it as the incident had occurred in the US jurisdiction and not in Cayman airspace.