The runway crash of two Northwest Airlines jets yesterday at Detroit Metropolitan Airport involved some of commercial aviation's most pressing safety issues, including runway-accident prevention, bad weather and pilot error.
As air traffic increases and major airports approach capacity, safety groups and the aviation industry are expressing increasing concern about preventing accidents such as the one yesterday in which eight passengers died. The planes were taxiing for takeoff and collided in fog.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates accidents, warned last year that ground accidents at major U.S. airports posed "a high potential for catastrophe," especially because of congestion at airports.
Federal Aviation Administration statistics show an increase in runway incidents after a period of decline. Last year, there were 232 such accidents, up from 181 in 1988. The FAA defines such incursions to include collisions, near-collisions and vehicles crossing runways.
"It is a serious problem," said Mike Benson, spokesman for the safety board, which agreed in October to put runway collisions on a priority list of most-needed safety improvements.
Dating to 1978, the safety board repeatedly has warned the FAA to take further steps to reduce the potential danger of runway collisions.
In 1986, a year after two DC-10s nearly collided at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, the safety board called for a series of changes, including better training and more precise operating practices by air controllers and pilots. In that near-collision, one plane was taking off while the other was authorized to taxi across the same runway.
In particular, the safety board is asking the FAA to require pilots to "read back" instructions received from air traffic controllers before seeking to hold, take off or move onto an active runway.
Moreover, the safety board wants the FAA to accelerate development of a system that would sound an alarm to air traffic controllers when two planes move near each other.
The board also wants federal officials to revise and enforce requirements to investigate and report operational or pilot errors that lead to many runway incursions.
An FAA spokesman could not be reached last night, but agency officials have said they are considering the safety board's recommendations.
Runway accidents have been the focus of intense scrutiny within the industry and government since the world's worst aviation disaster occurred in 1977 in the Canary Islands.
In that accident, which was similar to yesterday's crash, a KLM Boeing 747 jumbo jet roared down the runway at Los Rodeos Airport on the island of Tenerife and hit a taxiing Pan Am 747, killing 582 people on both planes. The KLM pilot was blamed for taking off without clearance.
Most airline accidents are caused by bad weather or pilot error. Both may have been factors yesterday. A spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association accused one pilot of becoming lost on the runway.
Over the next 10 years, the FAA is to spend several billion dollars on new systems sought to improve detection of weather conditions.