Politics & Government

FAA takes steps to lower odds of runway collisions

WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration announced a series of runway safety initiatives Monday designed to avoid the types of conditions that led to a 2006 crash in Lexington, Ky., that killed 49 people and two recent near-collisions at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

The FAA's measures include installing more than $400 million worth of runway status lights at major airports; the lights would warn pilots when it is unsafe to cross or enter a runway. The agency expects to award a contract this fall to install the runway light systems at 22 large airports over the next three years.

The FAA also hopes to provide up to $5 million to test cockpit displays that would give pilots the most up-to-date information on runway conditions.

The measures were prompted in part by the Aug. 27, 2006 crash of a Comair Flight 5191, which took off from Blue Grass Airport down the wrong runway and crashed into a field, killing 49 people. The crash's lone survivor was the pilot.

On Friday, as well as six days earlier, two passenger jetliners at New York's JFK airport — one taking off, one landing — came within a half-mile of each other.

"Severe runway incursions are down," FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell said in a statement announcing the initiatives. "And we're putting technology and procedures in place to keep it that way. We're making changes on the runway and in the cockpit that are going to make a significant difference."

In recent months aviation experts and lawmakers have criticized the number of runway incursions, defined as an event in which any aircraft, vehicle or person intrudes in space reserved for takeoff or landing.

Last year, the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, found that there is "a high risk of a catastrophic runway collision occurring in the United States" because of poorly functioning equipment, fatigued air traffic controllers and spotty leadership at the federal level.

Experts, including members of the National Transportation Safety Board, have also questioned FAA's practice of issuing safety recommendations rather than mandatory guidelines.

"We're trying to work with the industry and try to get the changes without making rules," said FAA spokeswoman Tammy Jones.

In the past, the FAA and other transportation agencies have used the National Transportation Safety Board's suggestions as a guidepost for change. But the pace of that change frustrates some safety board members and transportation experts.

"This is a step in the right direction, but it is not going to cure the problem of runway incursions," Robert Sumwalt, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said of incidents when people or craft stray into the takeoff or landing fields. "We issued this recommendation in 2000. . . . The runway light system will not be equipped at all airports as we recommended. It's only at 20 airports."

RUNWAY STATUS LIGHTS:

Runway status lights, which warn pilots when it's unsafe to cross or enter a runway, will be deployed at:

  • Atlanta
  • Baltimore Washington International
  • Boston
  • Charlotte
  • Dallas-Fort Worth
  • Denver
  • Detroit
  • Washington-Dulles
  • Fort Lauderdale
  • Houston Intercontinental
  • John F. Kennedy in New York
  • LaGuardia in New York
  • Las Vegas
  • Los Angeles International
  • Minneapolis
  • Newark
  • Chicago O'Hare
  • Orlando
  • Philadelphia
  • Phoenix
  • San Diego
  • Seattle-Tacoma
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