Close calls on the runway

Evan as incidents of near-misses on runways, the FAA struggles to update safety plans



The nation’s airports have been plagued by an alarming rise in dangerous runway incidents, but the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) response has been criticized as inadequate by a host of oversight bodies. So-called runway incursions — incidents in which aircraft, vehicles, or persons create a collision hazard — have appeared on the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) Most Wanted list of issues demanding improvement ever since 1990. At least 112 people have lost their lives due to incursion accidents since the issue first appeared on the NTSB list. Thousands more have faced harrowing close calls; among airports, Los Angeles International and Chicago O’Hare experienced the most incursions between 2001 and 2007. After a substantial rise in runway incursions from 1999 to 2001 (from 329 incidents up to 407), the FAA acted to curb the trend through regionally-based runway safety efforts, an education program, and creation of a runway safety office at agency headquarters. But the incursion rate began to rise again after 2003, and 2007 saw a 12 percent increase in incidents over the year before. That prompted criticism from the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Office of Inspector General, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and the NTSB, which called the FAA response “unacceptable.” The FAA had not updated its runway safety plan after 2002 despite planning to do so every two to three years, and it let the director’s chair in its Office of Runway Safety sit unfilled for nearly three years as staff levels halved, leading the inspector general to name runway incursions as a Top Management Challenge of 2008. Although the FAA was pursuing technological fixes, the GAO reported in February 2008 that “further progress has been impeded by the lack of leadership and coordination, technology challenges, lack of data, and human-factors related issues.” An FAA spokesman said the agency is “trying to get to the root causes of runway incursions,” which it says typically stem from a combination of factors such as failed equipment and human errors. The agency is also installing advanced equipment at the top 35 airports by 2010 to address radar failures during poor weather.

After issuing multiple recommendations to the FAA in a House hearing last February, the Government Accountability Office updated its reporting in September 2008. The incursion rate for the year was slightly higher than in 2007 and human factors issues need to be further addressed, but investigators found that the FAA “has given higher priority to improving runway safety than it did during the previous two years.” An October 2008 NTSB update still classified the FAA response to improving runway safety as unacceptable, while the GAO highlighted the issue for the Obama administration in a presidential transition report.

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