Number of Close Calls on Runways Cut by More Than Half, FAA Says

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 2009

Air travelers face less risk from catastrophic runway collisions, although the rate of total incidents involving hazards on runways inched upward from a year ago, U.S. aviation officials said Thursday.

The Federal Aviation Administration said the most serious types of "runway incursions" -- those in which a crash was barely avoided -- dropped to 12 in fiscal 2009 from 25 the previous year. Two of those in 2009 involved commercial aircraft, compared with nine a year earlier, the FAA said.

There were 951 incursions in fiscal 2009, a rate of 18.08 incidents per 1 million operations, based on FAA estimates. In fiscal 2008, the rate was 17.23 incidents per 1 million operations. But William R. Voss, president of the nonprofit Flight Safety Foundation, said the agency should be commended for the reductions in the most serious categories of incursions.

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. Incursions are defined as incidents in which a plane or vehicle creates a collision hazard on a runway.

In 2007, a Government Accountability Office report concluded that the nation faced a "high risk of a catastrophic runway collision," citing lax regulatory focus, ineffective technology and overworked air traffic controllers. The report came after a number of close calls that year at some of the nation's busiest airports. Since then, the FAA has sought improvements from airports, airlines, pilots and air traffic controllers.

The FAA pushed to upgrade the communication procedures among controllers and flight crews, making certain pilots understand when they are cleared to move. FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt said those initiatives were paying off. The agency also demanded some low-tech solutions, some as simple as putting down new paint markers and adjusting the angles of signs.

"U.S. runways have never been safer," he said. "We intensified the focus, and it's absolutely working."

On the technology front, the FAA is deploying a new red-light warning system, called Runway Status Lights, which alerts pilots when it's unsafe to cross, enter or take off on runways. Another new system, Airport Surface Detection Equipment, allows controllers to electronically track service vehicles and aircraft using sensors and transponders.

Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, for example, improved taxiway markings and expanded worker training. BWI is also moving to the new runway warning light and surface detection systems, an airport spokesman said.

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