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None of the 13 incidents analyzed was deemed high risk. Most were classified as low risk, with three as medium risk. Two of those medium-risk events involved conflicts with a nearby airport or airports. While those facilities weren’t identified in the FAA reports, the Airlake Airport in Lakeville and Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie are closest to MSP.
In one event, a single-engine Cessna was flying toward a smaller airport while a 50-seat commercial airliner was departing MSP.
The Cessna “mistook the primary airport for the satellite airport,” turned toward the international airport “and entered [the airliner’s] airspace,” the analysis concluded. The severity of the event was classified as “major,” but its chances of reoccurring were considered remote.
In another medium-risk event, a 13-seat twin engine turboprop was departing southeast from MSP but “turned further west than the assigned heading,” the FAA reported. It was assigned a new direction, but “did not fly that heading either,” coming too close to a single-engine plane approaching a nearby airport.
Strong said directing air traffic at MSP “may be more complex … due to satellite airports that generate a whole lot of bug smashers and puddle jumpers all over the place.”
The FAA reported 1,895 incidents nationwide of planes coming too close together in 2011, the last year of the old reporting system. Even under the old system, the MSP tower had more planes too close together than five of 10 busier airports.
MSP handles 80 percent of its traffic using parallel runways that face northwest and southeast to take advantage of prevailing winds. They are crossed by a third runway. A newer fourth runway facing north and south handles some traffic that otherwise would use the parallel runways and fly over south Minneapolis.
Jim Swenberger, who worked for three decades for the FAA as a controller, supervisor and investigator, said MSP’s runway design creates problems for controllers if a plane cancels a landing on the new north-south runway and turns toward the parallel runways.
“They’re distracted with a crossing runway operation,” Swenberger said of the controllers. “You look at all the major airports in the country, and they are trying to avoid any crossing runway operations. And Minneapolis created it.”
He said the airport decided against building a third parallel runway because it would have sent more planes over residents already protesting airport noise. “People’s heads would explode,” he said.
But airport spokesman Patrick Hogan has said Minneapolis lacks space for a third parallel runway because it is hemmed in by highways, a shopping mall and other obstacles.
Sam Tomlin, a veteran air traffic controller at MSP, also cited the number and arrangement of runways as a factor in the older reports on errors by the FAA. Newer airports have more runways; Dallas-Fort Worth has seven, Denver has six. And more of their runways are parallel, giving controllers more opportunity to avoid conflicts.
“It offers you so much more flexibility,” Tomlin said last year.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association last week referred to Tomlin’s explanation when asked to explain the more recent higher numbers at the airport.
“His description of the operation at MSP stands the same as he described it last year,” association spokeswoman Sarah Dunn said.
Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504