Is the Runway Part of the Problem?

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DAVID STEPHENSON / LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER / AP

Fire and impact marks are visible on the ground west of Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky., where Comair Flight 5191 crashed during takeoff on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2006. Forty-nine people were killed.

Airplane accidents are so infrequent today that travelers rarely even think about them. That is the result of decades of aviation safety improvements and an accident investigation culture that looks for problems then fixes them. The recent record in the U.S. has been especially noteworthy. Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversight office, led by Associate Administrator Nicholas Sabatini, have made history in the past three years: the .017 accident rate per 100,000 takeoffs has made the U.S. the safest system ever.

But there is one part of the air safety system that has proven stubbornly resistant and where mistakes continue to occur: on the ground. The deadliest crash in aviation history occurred in 1977 when two Boeing 747s collided in the Canary Islands, killing 583 people. And even the best airlines in the world have had problems on the ground — in 2000 a 747 flown by Singapore Airlines on its way to Los Angeles crashed on takeoff in Taipei, Taiwan, when a pilot headed down what was a closed runway and plowed into construction equipment. Planes don't run into each other in the air anymore because the jetways in the sky and the approach and landing patterns near airports are very well defined, air traffic controllers can easily track planes on radar (while on the ground at smaller airports sometimes controllers can actually see the plane) and pilots know and understand the routes. They rarely, if ever, change. And if routes are amended, the air safety system — coordinated by the FAA — does an excellent job of informing pilots, airlines, private plane operators, air traffic controllers and ground personnel that the change is coming.

Yet the main problem on the ground — so-called runway incursions (where planes come too close together) have remained troublesome. According to the FAA, in 2005, there were a total of 327 runway incursions. Twenty-nine of those were very significant or serious, which is less than 10% of the total. In terms of error types, there were 169 pilot deviations, 105 operational errors/deviations by controllers, and 53 vehicle/pedestrian deviations. While pilot deviations are the most common type of runway incursion, they accounted for only 31% of serious incursions in the past fiscal year.

As the pilots prepared Comair Flight 5191 for takeoff in the predawn darkness Sunday, they talked with air traffic controllers about Runway 22, Blue Grass Airport's main strip for commercial flights, a federal official said on CNN on Monday after listening to tapes recovered from the crashed plane's cockpit and the control tower. Somehow, the commuter jet and its 50 occupants ended up on Runway 26 instead, a cracked surface meant for small planes that was much too short for the twin-engine jet. The pilots tried to lift off, but the plane clipped trees, then quickly crashed in a field and burst into flames, killing everyone aboard but a critically injured co-pilot who was pulled from the cracked cockpit.

"There was planning discussion, both by the air traffic controllers and the crew, conversations with each other about using Runway 22 for departure," National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) member Deborah Hersman said Monday on CNN. "We do know from the information that we have obtained on scene, gathered evidence, documentation and from the flight data recorder, that the runway that the crew used was Runway 26." The two runways at the Lexington airport cross in an X pattern. To get from the terminal to the head of Runway 22, the airport's 7,000-ft.-long main strip, the plane would have had to pass the entry point to the 3,500-ft.-long Runway 26.

Last fall, the NTSB said that runway incursions were among the NTSB's "most wanted" improvements. It also said that existing runway safety procedures are insufficient and criticized the FAA for being slow to make improvements. Sometimes large safety issues can be solved with small changes like lighting and paint. Although it has not been ruled that poor signage or lighting is involved in the Comair crash, it has been an ongoing issue that safety experts have been trying to fix. An FAA test project to make runway markings more visible that was begun at T. F. Green Airport in Providence, R.I., last year was so successful at reducing incursions that the agency is taking the program nationwide. The project made a new brighter, bigger centerline and increased the width of the yellow bars from 6 to 12 lines on a black background to increase the contrast on the "hold short" markings (where planes stop before entering the runway). The FAA has ordered that the same changes will be required at the nation's biggest 72 airports by June 30, 2008. The new markings will be optional at all other airports, but if they are used, they must be installed at every holding position on the airfield.

—With additional reporting by the Associated Press