A few weeks ago a passenger jet flying from Dallas to Chicago's O'Hare Airport was coming in for a landing when the pilot suddenly pulled the plane up. ''Too many planes in our airspace,'' the pilot explained in what one passenger describes as a deliberately cheerful tone. She looked out the window to see another plane passing underneath.
The incident may not have fit the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) technical definition of a ''near miss,'' but it did fit hers. And her sister had had a similar experience coming into O'Hare from the West Coast some years before. As the sister recalls it: ''We were very close to the ground when we suddenly shot straight up again. The pilot said something like, 'Whoops - that plane (still sitting on the runway) didn't get off in time.' ''
While the nation's skyways are less clogged than the highways, near-misses have long marred the smooth functioning of America's air traffic control system.
Few have led to collisions. But, by the FAA's own count of incidents, as reported voluntarily by pilots and controllers, there is a near-miss somewhere in the United States at least once a day. (This figure may be a small indicator of the actual total because airline and FAA employees fear that speaking up may have a negative impact on their jobs or salaries.)
According to FAA spokesman Dennis Feldman, there have been 489 such incidents so far this year - an increase of 120 over the 1982 total. The FAA attributes the jump to its increased emphasis on the importance of reporting all such ''operational errors'' (when planes fly closer to each other than five miles horizontally or 1,000 feet vertically) and to a new computerized error-tracking system at three of the FAA's 20 regional control centers.
A special report on the near-miss problem televised Oct. 8 by NBC News indicates that many of the sharpest increases are at larger, more heavily used centers. For instance, the number of reported incidents at the Chicago and Cleveland regional centers are already more than double last year's totals.
''We've seen a lot of near-misses in and near terminal control areas - with a majority below 10,000 feet,'' says John Galipault, president of the Aviation Safety Institute in Ohio, an independent group that urges pilots, controllers, and mechanics to report any hazards via its toll-free number.
Whatever the actual total and the reason for the hike in the reported figure, a number of independent aviation safety experts are concerned about the near-miss problem as the FAA completes its rebuilding of the air traffic control system. It has been two years since the Reagan administration fired two-thirds of the experienced controller force for taking part in an illegal strike. The FAA, which stepped up its recruiting and rallied supervisors and military controllers to help out in the emergency, has long insisted its manpower situation would return to normal by mid-1984.
Originally cut by one-third, plane traffic already has returned to 97 or 98 percent of the prestrike flow. Pressure from the airline industry to lift remaining curbs as soon as possible for economic reasons have been intense. The FAA currently expects to drop traffic limits at the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia airports by the end of this month and at LaGuardia in New York City by Jan. 9. Chicago's Midway airport may see normalcy by February. April 1 is the date now set for Denver's Stapleton Airport, while limits at Chicago's O'Hare will not be lifted at least until that date. Curbs at Los Angeles International Airport are expected to hold until July 8.
Still, many, including the National Transportation Safety Board, have strongly urged the FAA to keep traffic limits in place for safety reasons until experienced controllers are back on normal work schedules and new controllers have the training andm the seasoning they need to make the best decisions.
''More near-misses and controller errors are to be expected as traffic is increased,'' insists Matthew Finucane, executive director of Ralph Nadar's Aviation Consumer Action Project.
A House Public Works subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Elliott Levitas (D) of Georgia, has been monitoring the situation and expects to hold hearings on it before the end of the year.
In some cases, controllers themselves are speaking up about the risks. An Aug. 10 letter to FAA administrator J. Lynn Helms from 135 controllers in the Washington, D.C., regional air traffic center complains of understaffing, fatigue, and low morale from overwork. ''Safety is being sacrificed for false economies,'' the controllers say.
By its own admission, the FAA has been speeding up the controller training process. It now takes two years, only half as long as it used to, become a journeyman controller. Mr. Feldman explains that controllers, once expected to be proficient in six or eight positions, now can be checked out in one or two to become immediately productive.
But Roy Bozych, a fired controller who keeps close tabs on the near-miss count at Chicago's regional air traffic control center at Aurora, where he used to work, says the accelerated training has led to unacceptable ''shortcuts.''
''The FAA is trying to push people through too fast - they're not getting the experience they need,'' he says. ''It will take at least another five years to rebuild the system.''
But for the moment, the FAA remains confident about its timetable. ''If the system were deficient, we'd be having many more serious problems than we do,'' Feldman says.