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Airliner near-misses prompt call for changes to 'go-around' rules

Five recent near-misses involving commercial airliners has prompted the National Transportation Safety Board to make recommendations for new rules to avoid such close calls -- even as the agency investigates a new incident over Michigan.

The recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration refer to aircraft arriving at or departing crowded airports and would modify rules for air traffic controllers to ensure the safe separation of planes during "go-around" maneuvers.

The go-around - an aborted landing attempt by an airplane on final approach - can be initiated at the direction of air traffic control or by the flight crew when a determination is made that circumstances are unfavorable for a safe landing.

The safety hazard identified in the five incidents -- two of which happened on the same day last July -- each occurred when an airplane on approach aborted the landing attempt and initiated a go-around maneuver, which put the go-around airplane on a flight path that intersected with that of another airplane that was either departing or arriving on another runway of the same airport.

Although current FAA procedures have specific requirements for ensuring the separation between two airplanes that are departing from different runways but that have intersecting flight paths, they do not prohibit controllers from clearing an airplane to land at a time when it would create a potential collision hazard with another aircraft if the pilots of the landing airplane perform a go-around. 

In such situations, a flight crew performing a go-around may be put into the position of having to execute evasive maneuvers at low altitude and high closing speeds with little time to avoid a mid-air collision.

The NTSB has determined that existing FAA separation standards and operating procedures are inadequate and need to be revised to ensure the safe separation between aircraft near the airport environment.

The NTSB cannot force the FAA to implement any recommendations, but according to a statement from the FAA, “the FAA's Air Traffic Organization thoroughly investigated the incidents and took aggressive steps to address the causes. The FAA takes NTSB recommendations very seriously and will respond to the board in a timely manner.”

Meanwhile, the NTSB is investigating a close call of a Spirit Airlines flight Sunday that led the Airbus to dive 1,600 feet to avoid a skydiving jump plane. 

The incident took place about 40 miles outside Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport and would not have been affected by the proposed rule modifications.