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After midair near-collision at Newark airport, FAA changes takeoff and landing procedure

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NEWARK, N.J. - The close call between two planes at Newark Liberty International Airport last month has prompted changes in the airport's takeoff and landing procedures.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Tuesday that planes taking off and landing simultaneously won't use the intersecting runways where a United flight coming from San Francisco and an ExpressJet flight taking off for Memphis, Tennessee, came dangerously close to each other on April 24.

"The FAA has investigated the recent air traffic incident at Newark and has taken steps to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future," the FAA's statement said.

Specifically, the FAA said, planes are no longer using the east-west Runway 29 for arrivals at the same time planes are taking off on the north-south Runway 4R.

In a recently released preliminary report, the National Transportation Safety Board classified the April arriving and department flights as a "near midair collision." The planes came within about 200 feet laterally of each other and 400 feet vertically.

The east-west Runway 29 that the United flight was approaching is normally used to augment the two north-south runways, but has been in heavier use recently because of construction work on one of the north-south runways.

The ExpressJet flight was taking off heading north while the United flight was heading west to land. The NTSB report said an air traffic controller told the incoming plane to abort its landing and perform a "go-around" and climb back up. The ExpressJet pilot told the tower he was keeping the plane's nose low on takeoff; he can be heard on a radio recording saying the United flight came "real close."

The preliminary report doesn't speculate on what caused the planes to come so close, and a final report likely won't be released for at least several months.

While a midair near-collision was a rarity, go-arounds are a regular occurrence at the nation's airports and often involve intersecting runways, said Mark Dombroff, a former FAA and Justice Department aviation attorney currently in private practice.

Go-arounds can be prompted by, for example, a just-landed plane still on the runway up ahead or a potential problem with a plane's mechanics, Dombroff said. On Tuesday afternoon, for example, a flight heading west toward Newark's Runway 29 — the same runway the United flight approached on April 24 — executed a go-around, about 30 seconds before a plane coming from the north landed on the intersecting north-south runway.

"The use of intersecting runways isn't unusual, it's something that the air traffic control system takes into account with its procedures," Dombroff said.

He said the responses to the potential collision at Newark were "a tribute to the pilots' skills; if you listen to the tapes, those guys are very cool, there's no panic. In many respects, it's a good example of the way the system's supposed to work."

Air traffic controllers at Newark couldn't comment on the close call last month because of the ongoing NTSB investigation, said Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, a labour union.

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