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New rules for planes carrying first lady

WASHINGTON -- Aircraft carrying the first lady or the vice president will receive a higher level of scrutiny from air traffic controllers after an aborted landing this week of a plane carrying Michelle Obama, the Federal Aviation Administration said yesterday.

From now on, flights carrying Obama or Vice President Joe Biden will be handled by an air traffic supervisor rather than a controller, the agency said. The new rules apply to approaches and departures handled by a regional air traffic facility in Warrenton, Va., and takeoffs and landings at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, where the presidential fleet is based. Flights with the president on board are already required to be handled by a supervisor.

Also yesterday, the National Transportation Safety Board said it has opened an investigation into the aborted landing Monday at Andrews of a plane carrying Obama.

While aborted landings are not unusual, and Obama apparently wasn't in serious danger, the episode has become another embarrassment for the FAA. Agency officials have been struggling to calm public jitters about flying raised by nine suspensions of air traffic controllers and supervisors around the country in recent weeks, including five for sleeping on the job.

The incident involving the first lady and Jill Biden, wife of the vice president, occurred about 5 p.m. Monday when a Boeing 737 belonging to the Air National Guard came within about three miles of a massive C-17 cargo plane as the planes were approaching Andrews to land, according to the FAA and Maj. Michelle Lai, a spokeswoman for the base.

The FAA requires a minimum separation of five miles between two planes when the plane in the lead is as large as the 200-ton military cargo jet, in order to avoid dangerous wake turbulence that can severely affect the trailing aircraft.

Andrews' civilian air traffic controllers initially ordered Obama's plane to conduct a series of turns to take it farther from the military jet. When that didn't provide enough distance, controllers realized there might not be enough time for the cargo plane to clear the Andrews runway before Obama's plane landed.

Controllers then directed the pilot of Obama's plane to execute a "go-around" -- to stop descending and start climbing -- and circle the airport. A go-around is considered a type of aborted landing.

The required separation between the two planes "was compromised," the NTSB said yesterday.

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