Flying the Crowded Skies, Landing on Gridlocked Runways

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White-knuckle flyers generally heave a sigh of relief when their plane touches the runway, but according to new Federal Aviation Administration statistics, that moment is becoming more dangerous by the year. In 1999, there were 327 airplane accidents on the ground, up from 186 in 1993 — and that number, as TIME Washington correspondent Sally Donnelly says, reflects only the incidents anyone bothered to report. Tuesday, in the face of rising pressure from the House of Representatives, the FAA released a new set of safety measures designed to make takeoff and touchdown slightly less nerve-wracking. The initiatives, released one week before FAA officials were scheduled to present their plans to a House committee, call for the nationwide installation of surface radar, seminars on runway safety and procedures to encourage pilot reporting.

It's hard to say exactly why the number of so-called runway "incursions" has risen so steadily, says Donnelly, but it doesn't help that there are more planes than ever taking flight and landing on a virtually unchanged number of runways. "The FAA is making a preemptive strike with this announcement," says Donnelly. "And they've decided to address the problem of runway accidents by trying to increase awareness among pilots and ground crew." That can't hurt, adds Donnelly, but any real changes — like more runway space — will take a whole lot of money. And that's one thing the FAA isn't likely to get.