Two Jets Pass Within 300 Feet on Runways

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 8, 2007

Two commercial jets came within 300 feet of hitting each other at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport last weekend, federal aviation officials said yesterday.

The incident occurred about 7:25 p.m. Sunday when a Delta Connection regional jet took off and flew over a US Airways Airbus A320 that was landing on a crossing runway, officials said.

Airline representatives said there were 43 passengers on the Delta Connection jet, which is operated by Comair and was headed to Boston. There were 150 passengers on the US Airways jet, which was arriving from Phoenix. No one was hurt on either plane.

The US Airways pilots reported the incident, FAA officials said, adding that the Delta Connection flight crew never saw the other plane.

FAA officials said a controller in the BWI tower improperly issued a takeoff clearance for the Delta Connection flight even though the US Airways plane was approaching the runway. The controller was not identified.

A system that alerts controllers to potential runway collisions sounded, but not in time for the controller to take action, FAA officials said. A representative of the controllers union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, declined to comment.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the incident, which is being classified as a runway incursion.

Representatives of both carriers said they are cooperating with investigators.

Runway safety has long been a focus of regulators, investigators and safety experts, because runways and taxiways are some of the busiest and most complex bits of real estate in the aviation system.

On Wednesday, the Government Accountability Office released a report concluding that the nation faces a "high risk of a catastrophic runway collision" because regulators have lost focus on the issue, technology has not lived up to expectations and controllers may be overworked.

The report says that runway incursions -- incidents in which a plane or vehicle creates a collision hazard on a runway -- inched upward in the past fiscal year after holding steady since 2002.

There were 370 incursions in fiscal 2007, a rate of 6.05 incidents per 1 million tower operations, the GAO reported.

The most serious types of incursions -- those in which a crash was barely avoided -- dropped to 24 in fiscal 2007 from 31 a year earlier. Eight of the serious incursions in fiscal 2007 involved commercial aircraft, FAA officials said.

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