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A Red Light on Runway Incursion

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, November 23, 2004; Page E01

The video animation the National Transportation Safety Board created showed that the Asiana jet coming into Los Angeles Airport was a mere 12 seconds from landing on top of a Southwest Airlines plane sitting on the same runway, cleared for takeoff. Just to the right and 185 feet above the Southwest aircraft, Asiana pulled up and avoided a collision.

Hundreds of passengers were onboard the planes. Heard on the cockpit voice tape was an unidentified voice: "That was close."

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That Aug. 19 incident is why "runway incursion" has long been included on the NTSB's Most Wanted list. Since 1990, the five-member safety agency has kept a list of the most intractable problems facing the transportation industry. The board used the video to illustrate the seriousness of these close calls.

The independent agency has been investigating accidents and proposing remedies to avoid them since it was founded in 1967. It has no enforcement authority, so it issues safety recommendations, thousands of them over the years, to the agencies within the Department of Transportation, the states and companies.

Generally, response has been good, officials said. About 82 percent of the NTSB's suggestions get implemented, making changes to air, marine, rail, truck and highway rules, equipment and procedures.

But for those left unfixed for years, there's the Most Wanted list. The idea was to focus the board on what it considered the most serious safety issues and to apply pressure to the agencies to react.

As NTSB Chairman Ellen Engleman Conners put it, "If we are the bully pulpit, these are the regular sermons."

As former head of the Transportation Department's Research and Special Programs Administration, Engleman Conners has been on the other end of the Most Wanted list. She said it is a place you don't want to be.

"I think it's a very useful device because it does put the agencies on the spot. More often than not, they get reaction from the agencies," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a public interest group involved in many of the safety issues the NTSB identifies.

Claybrook said the NTSB is important because it's one of the few remaining government oversight agencies that exists to highlight deficiencies.

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