The Federal Aviation Administration yesterday announced plans to install a new system that the agency says will reduce the chances of aircraft collisions on the nation's runways and taxiways.
The new system improves air traffic controllers' ability to spot potential aircraft collisions on the ground at night and in bad weather. The FAA will begin installing the system in January at 14 airports nationwide, including all three Washington area airports: Reagan National, Dulles International and Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International.
The rollout will be expanded to other airports in phases through 2011. Each system costs about $8.5 million, and some airports such as Los Angeles International could have two systems because of their size and the configuration of their runways.
"Reducing the risk of runway incursions is one of our top safety initiatives," FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey said in a statement. "The FAA is deploying new technology to these large airports to make sure the traveling public receives the most immediate and greatest safety benefit."
Most airports currently use a radar-based system that critics say can give false information or misread targets in bad weather. The new technology relies on transponders attached to the aircraft. It gives the same signal on the ground as it does in the air, allowing controllers to track aircraft and avoid collisions or near misses. The system is already in use at four airports: Orlando, Milwaukee, Providence and Houston's William P. Hobby Airport.
The FAA's announcement was pushed up a week to coincide with a news conference by members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association on the need for the new technology. The controllers said they have been calling for the new system for some time. "This is a needed safety improvement that is long overdue," said John Carr, the group's president.
While no runway collisions have occurred in the United States in recent years, Carr said there have been numerous near misses, including this summer when an Israir plane taxied down the runway at night in a rainstorm at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport as a cargo plane was preparing to take off. The incident is under investigation.
Eight near misses occurred at Boston's Logan International between January 2004 and June 1, 2005, according to the controller group. One incident involved a jet operated by Comair, Delta Air Lines' commuter carrier, that came within 500 feet of a taxiing US Airways plane.
Chris Stephenson, a controller based at National, said a "couple" of runway incursions had occurred at the airport in which pilots had to abruptly steer their aircraft away from another carrier on the runway. "We have a really good record there as far as runway incidents," Stephenson said. "But it only takes one."