Bright Lights, Big Dogfight

ARE THE FLASHING LIGHTS on airliners too dim to prevent collisions? Federal regulators are pushing the airlines to boost the candlepower of their fleets' strobe lights by Sept. 1. But the carriers are resisting, saying stronger lights aren't needed and are too expensive: They would cost the ailing industry an extra $40 million yearly.

The lights, mounted on the fuselage, tail, and wingtips, are mainly safeguards for landings and take-offs, particularly at night and in poor weather. Once in midair, planes rely on air-traffic controllers to avoid collisions.

The Federal Aviation Administration cites dozens of close calls during the past two decades--and at least one fatal crash--in which it says poor warning lights were a factor. The crash: a 1991 nighttime accident at Los Angeles International Airport where a landing USAir jetliner hit a SkyWest commuter craft waiting on the runway; 34 died. A 1993 study by consultant Strotech concluded that at least 50% of the major airlines' 4,500 planes didn't meet the feds' standards for warning lights.

The Air Transport Assn., the industry trade group, argues these standards are arbitrary; the feds say good studies back them up. Warning-light rules have been around 23 years, yet weren't enforced because the industry couldn't measure strobe strength. They have the tools now. The FAA had granted the airlines a two-year reprieve until September, and they are appealing to Congress.

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