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The devastation on the ground renewed a controversy in San Diego about such a busy airport's being situated in a heavily populated area. Yet San Diego is hardly alone in its worries: aircraft approaching Chicago's much busier O'Hare, Washington's National and New York's La Guardia and Kennedy airports regularly do so over densely populated areas.
But the broader problem of the sheer increase in the number of aircraft in the skiesand the mixing of planes so different in speed, size and sophistication of equipmentis more and more troublesome. This is true despite the fact that as the planes in use have multiplied the number of accidents has by no means risen proportionately. It is a testament to the effectiveness of tougher federal safety standards that there were 4,968 accidents in general aviation service in 1968 (when there were 124,000 planes in use) and only 4,286 accidents in 1977 (when there were 185,000 such aircraft). The decrease in the number of fatalities for each mile flown in such private traffic is also impressive: fatal accidents averaged .204 per 100,000 hrs. flown in 1967 and only .076 per 100,000 hrs. last year. Private pilots argue, quite accurately, that more Americans die each year in boating and swimming accidents than in light aircraft mishaps.
That record, however, is no reason for complacency. The number of reported "near misses" of aircraft in flight has been increasing sharply, to 384 last yearand the safety experts believe that only a small portion of such perilous passings are reported. The overwhelming majority do not involve commercial airliners. But as the San Diego crash illustrates, the loss of life is large when the near miss involving a big passenger jet turns into an actual collision.
To avoid that, a few Congressmen have in the past vainly proposed legislation banning light aircraft from major airfields. It now seems likely that there will be more such bills, and they may get more serious consideration. Some safety experts support such a segregation of aircraft. "You just can't have complete freedom of movement for all and total safety," contends James Gannett, a senior engineer test pilot for Boeing. "You've got to put the big guys in one place and the little guys in another." Most airline pilots, unwilling to bully their lesser brothers, are not necessarily in favor of an outright ban, but they do want the private pilots to pay a higher admission price, in the form of better equipment and training, for the use of congested major fields. "It's not that we want to exclude them from airspace," says United Airlines Captain Bay Lahr. "It's just that we don't want to crash into them."