JFK Runway Recipe Raises Risks
By Howard Schwach
The man who heads the Air Traffic Controllers Union at the tower at John F. Kennedy Airport believes that Rockaway faces another disaster akin to the crash of American Airlines Flight 587, in which 265 people were killed and numerous homes were destroyed in November of 2001.
In an exclusive interview with The Wave, controller Barrett Byrnes, who works in the JFK Tower, said that a combination of factors could lead to another disaster in the skies over Rockaway.
"There has been a major increase in the number of flights, rising to perhaps double the volume this summer," Byrnes said. "Add to that the fact that the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] is now using three and four runways at a time rather than the traditional two runways, and the 30 percent reduction in the number of controllers who work the tower and you can see what could happen."
"When you lose staff," he added, "you have to combine positions and then your attention to detail goes right out the window."
Byrnes said that the FAA has begun using three of the four runways at the airport simultaneously for most of the day in response to the extra flights using the busy airport. That procedure, he says, was once reserved for brief periods of peak traffic and was never meant to be used on a regular basis.
A spokeswoman for the FAA admitted that three runways were often used at the same time and added that there were plans to use all four at the same time, if necessary.
Byrnes and others argue that the use of even three of the runways at the same time raises a safety risk and that using four is "courting disaster."
An aviation expert explained to The Wave that JFK Airport has two pairs of parallel runways (see diagram page 24).
The traditional and preferred procedure over the years has been to use one pair at a time, depending on the wind and whichever runways allow takeoffs and landings into the wind. To get maximum lift and control, planes must always take off and land into the wind, the expert explained.
Using more than one set of runways at a time works for short periods of time, Byrnes said, as long as the crosswinds are not too strong. When the winds reach the limits set on the "wind chart," Byrnes explained, using the multiple runway configuration is specifically outlawed.
Yet the FAA is not only permitting the multiple configuration, even in high cross-winds, it is pushing it, Byrnes said.
"Standard operating procedure was that [the controllers] would call the runway [to be used] and TRACON [the FAA's regional control center] would call the approach," Byrnes said. "Now, the FAA says that TRACON calls both the runway and the approach, so we have no say over limiting the number of runways that can be used at one time, even in high crosswind situations"
"This is a real safety issue," he added. "There have been a number of really close calls recently."
Byrnes gave the example of a plane cleared to land on a runway that ends a few feet before the middle of a perpendicular runway, but the pilot decided to abort the landing and circle back around for another try. In that case, the plane cleared to land will cross the other runway at a low altitude.
"You basically have planes flying right at each other," he said.
On May 5, the union filed a complaint with the FAA saying that the agency had violated its own rules on crosswind limits.
A spokesperson for the airport said that the flights were operated within the rules and that it is important to make maximum use of the runways to keep extensive delays from developing.
Byrnes worries too that the number of controllers has shrunk to 30 from 38 in the past year.
"More planes, more runways and fewer controllers," is the way he puts it.
He said that most of the controllers started when President Reagan fired all of the striking controllers in 1981. He pointed out that they have to do 25 years to get a pension.
"Add 25 to 1981 and what do you get?" he asked. "2006."
"They are leaving and not being replaced," he argued. "We have three new trainees, but the wheels are spinning pretty fast and it takes about three years to train somebody."
Traditionally, experts say, depending of the wind, planes departing or arriving at the airport can use any of the four runways. They are designated as 13R-31L, the longest commercial runway in the nation, measuring 14,572 feet, according to the FAA; 13L-31R, its parallel runway, 10,000 feet long; 4L-22R, 11,351 feet long and 4R-22L at 8,400 feet long.
The normal procedure in the past has been to use one parallel set of runways for both takeoffs and landings.
The current procedure, however, is to use a third runway for either takeoffs or landings at the same time as the other two runways.
The proposed procedure is to use all four runways at the same time.
"The FAA almost has to do it," the aviation expert told The Wave. "They have to keep the airplanes moving in and out without massive delays. The only solution would be to build another runway, and I don't think that's going to happen."
In answer to the union's charge that the number of controllers had dropped at the same time that flights increased, an airport official said, "the tower has been overstaffed for years. Now, it has the right number of people to do the job."