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Airport Safer Inside but Not Outside, Critics Say

By Alice Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 25, 1997

The new $450 million terminal at National Airport, which opens for business Sunday, has been designed with safety in mind -- from its non-slip terrazzo floors to its 3,200 fire and smoke alarms. The concrete around the airline gate area slopes away from the building to keep any jet fuel spills from seeping into the foundation and creating a fire hazard.

But even after a decade-long renovation that will cost more than $1 billion in all, National in many ways will still be the same airport that critics have derided as potentially unsafe -- with short, intersecting runways built on a landfill peninsula and surrounded by water and neighborhoods.

"It has all the problems of a small, close-in airport -- short runways, intersecting runways, with hazards at the ends. It has all the same kinds of problems that it did before" the renovation, said Mary Schiavo, former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation, who has been an outspoken critic of aviation safety standards.

National's renovation -- which besides the new terminal includes parking garages, a utility plant, a taxi garage and new roads -- will do nothing to make it safer to take off or land at the 860-acre airport.

There have been efforts to make National's runways safer; more than a decade ago, the "overrun" areas at the end of the 6,869-foot main runway were extended. But with a waterfowl refuge at the north end of the runway and a federally owned marina at the south end, any further extension of the runway would be a bureaucratic nightmare, officials say.

"Practically, [extending the main runway] would never happen," said James A. Wilding, general manager of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates National and Dulles International airports. He added that because National is designed as a commuter airport that does not handle large airliners, planes using its runways now "have fine margins of safety."

So officials overseeing National's redevelopment have focused on making other parts of the airport safer. A new exterior sprinkler system -- made necessary, officials say, by the closeness of the glass-walled terminal to airline gates and runways -- is a part of that effort.

A fire outside the new terminal's window wall would activate 84 exterior sprinklers that can spray thousands of gallons of water across the surface of the glass, keeping it cool and intact and protecting people in the building. The glass is built to withstand the thrust of jet engines or other blasts. Should it ever break, it would crumble into small, dull pieces, rather than sharp shards.

"An airplane sitting there at the gate has an enormous amount of fuel on board, and you have to be very conscious of that," Wilding said. "You keep that in mind in the design of everything around it, including the building."

But critics, including some pilots, continue to complain about the safety of the runways.

Several years ago, a survey of 200 pilots rated National as the nation's most challenging airport, with its main runway intersected by two shorter, crosswind runways. (By comparison, Dulles has parallel runways, each 11,500 feet long, plus a 12,500-foot-long crosswind runway.)

"We need to be closer to the perfect pilot to fly in here. . . . National is a safe airport, but it has shorter runways," said Bob Davis, a pilot who flies in and out of National and heads the safety committee of the Air Line Pilots Association. "But it's well within our capabilities."

Because hundreds of thousands of residents live within a 10-mile radius of the airport, National requires that to keep noise down, jets cut their power on takeoff at 1,500 feet, then gradually climb until they are 10 miles out. They also must follow the curve of the Potomac River when landing from or taking off to the north. The noise-control procedures and airspace restrictions over Washington add "an extra challenge," Davis said.

"That keeps us lower than we would be normally," he said. "If we lose an engine, we're in a far more dangerous situation than we would otherwise be."

In a June letter to the Federal Aviation Administration, the pilots association said that such restrictions detract from safety.

FAA officials counter that National's safety record is "excellent."

"It's an older airport and has a smaller amount of land, but of course operators know that and make allowances for it," said an FAA official who oversees airport standards and who requested anonymity. "The runways are built to our standards, and a lot of money has gone into the maintenance of those runways. It's a safe airport."

In 56 years of operation, there have been two fatal crashes at National involving passenger planes. The most recent was the 1982 crash of an Air Florida plane that hit the 14th Street bridge shortly after takeoff and killed 74 people, four of them on the bridge. In 1949, a fighter plane plowed into the rear of a DC-4 that was landing, and 55 people on board were killed. Federal investigators did not cite National's layout in either crash.

When planes heading into National experience problems, they usually are directed to Dulles's longer runways.

Yesterday, a corporate jet headed to National with eight people aboard was waved off to Dulles when cockpit warning lights indicated a landing gear problem. The plane landed safely at Dulles.

National's critics, who have concentrated primarily on how noisy the airport is, are now shifting their focus to safety. Many fear that the need to repay the bonds that were sold to renovate National will result in more pressure to ease federal restrictions that limit the number and size of planes using the airport.

"It will be more dangerous than before, because it will be so attractive, so comfortable," said Sherwin Landfield, who heads a group called Citizens Against Airport Noise. "To pay off all the debt . . . they are going to do a lot of things to market it."

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