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FAA orders safety change at BWI

Concerned about potential collisions, the Federal Aviation Administration has amended the rules on airplane landings and take-offs at airports with converging runways — a change that will affect Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in April.

Southwest Airline planes wait to take off at BWI. (The Daily Record/Rich Dennison)

The change will require air traffic managers to space out take-offs and landings on converging runways that do not physically intersect, but have intersecting flight paths up to one nautical mile past the end of the runway.

The change went into effect last week at seven airports, including Washington Dulles International Airport.

A second set of airports, including BWI, will see the changes on April 2, and the rest of the affected airports will see the rule change July 9.

The rule is intended to prevent collisions and close calls that could occur when an airplane scheduled to land at a particular time delays that landing, commencing what pilots call a “go-around,” as another flight is cleared for take-off. If the take-off commences without adjusting for the missed approach, it could cause a problem.

Sean Cassidy, first vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association, International, told The Daily Record that these missed approaches take place about once in every 1,000 flight cycles and can happen for a variety of reasons, including weather, delays and mechanical issues.

The FAA revision marks more of an evolution than a revolution in the FAA regulations for air traffic controllers, said Cassidy.

“Air traffic controllers already do a great job monitoring and preventing those situations from happening,” said Cassidy. “If executed well, I think it would mitigate a situation that doesn’t happen all that often.”

The National Transportation Safety Board recommended the change in July 2013 after examining three near-collisions at Las Vegas-McCarran International Airport, one at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and one at Charlotte International Airport in North Carolina. All three of those airports were affected in the first round of the rule change.

Dulles, in Sterling, Va., also made the initial list because of its runway setup, but that airport has previously adopted procedures to prevent collisions and near collisions, said Cassidy.

“Despite the fact that the airport is designed in that manner, the way they manage operations would make [a near-collision] an extreme rarity,” he said.

Air traffic controllers at busy airports work on coordinating a departure with scheduled landings long before a pilot even walks out to the airplane, said Cassidy.

While the regulation change affects the timing of that coordination, he said, it will take some time to see how it will affect airports and passengers.

“From my standpoint,” he said, “it probably wouldn’t be terribly noticeable to me.”

Whether the change will cause delays for passengers is uncertain. Officials at BWI and Dulles declined to comment, referring questions to the FAA, which refused to comment beyond the documents ordering the change. Spokespeople for Airlines for America, a national airline trade organization, declined to comment as well, because it is partnering with the FAA on an analysis of the issue.