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Record air traffic causing near misses - on the ground

Congested runways have led to a growing number of incursions, generating calls for common-sense solutions.

Talk about gridlock.

With a record 665 million travelers taking to the skies, the nation's runways are jam-packed and the number of near misses on the ground - the most potentially dangerous - continues to climb.

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The problem is once again popping up on the nation's radar screens, just as Americans pack their bags for some summer fun.

Since 1991, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has wrestled with ways to ensure packed planes don't fly too close to one another, or stray trucks ramble out onto the Tarmac, surprising pilots and endangering passengers. Despite those efforts, the problem continues to grow.

"The number of runway incursions remains alarmingly high," says National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman James Hall. At a hearing this week in Washington, Mr. Hall called on the FAA to focus on more common-sense solutions - like requiring pilots to get clearance before they cross every runway - as opposed to waiting for the high-tech computer fix, which is already 10 years behind schedule.

The FAA insists it's doing just that. In the past year, it has held educational workshops for pilots, air-traffic controllers, and airline officials around the country. It's set new standards and improved lighting and markings at most of the nation's airports. And this year, for the first time, there is a dedicated budget, $3.3 million, to improve runway safety.

"There's just a huge difference today, compared to what there was three or four years ago," says John Mayrhofer, director of the FAA's Runway Safety Program.

But the number of incursions keeps climbing. Last year, there were more than 320 runway incursions. That's a hike of 71 percent since 1993. And according to Rep. Frank Wolf, chairman of the House subcommittee on transportation, there's been an increase of 53 percent during the first four months of this year, compared with the same period last year.

While the numbers are still small compared with the 68 million safe takeoffs and landings each year, the potential danger is considerable, since two planes and two sets of passengers are involved. The worst accident in aviation history was on a runway. In 1977, two jumbo jets collided in the Canary Islands, killing 583 people.

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"Lots of runway incursions that you see are not a threat - say, somebody is on the runway that's not supposed to, but there isn't an imminent hazard," says Clint Oster, an aviation expert at Indiana University at Bloomington. "So just looking at the aggregate numbers doesn't tell you about the risk. You really want to look at how many actually had the potential for two planes running into one another."

That potential keeps runway incursions high on the NTSB's top 10 "most wanted" safety fixes at the nation's airports.

Some in the aviation industry blame the continued increases on FAA foot-dragging - a preoccupation with meetings and proposals as opposed to action. Others point to record air traffic, congested runways, and overworked air-traffic controllers. Mr. Mayrhofer admits the FAA has suffered from technical setbacks - particularly with the Airport Movement Safety System (AMASS).

That's the computer system that sends out an alarm when two planes appear to be on a collision path on the ground. In 1993, the FAA estimated AMASS would cost $59.8 million and be installed in the nation's major airports by 1996.

Today, according to Kenneth Mead, the inspector general of the Department of Transportation, the cost has soared to $151.8 million, and the system isn't expected to be up and operating in all the major airports until 2002.

That's one reason why the NTSB has called for a different approach. And Representative Wolf is seconding that. "This summer, there will be pressures to move aircraft more quickly in order to keep delay rates down," he says. "Since many airline delays occur on or near the runway surface, where congestion is greatest, it's imperative the FAA send strong signals to its workforce not to compromise runway safety."

But Mayrhofer staunchly defends the other steps taken so far to ensure that two packed planes don't accidentally collide.

So why do the numbers keep going up? "Runway incursions represent an enormously complex issue. It involves human performance of thousands of air-traffic controllers, over 600,000 pilots, and what could be a million or more people authorized to operate vehicles on the surface of the airport," Mayrhofer says.

"You blend those humans' performance with technology in both the cockpit and the control tower, and you add factors of meteorological conditions, nighttime operations. It's just an enormously complex issue for which there is no single solution."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society