Never Mind Flying: Let's Hope Your Pilot Passed Driver's Ed

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Maybe this will teach us to keep our seat belts securely fastened until our plane has stopped at the gate. Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a generally surly report citing the rising risk of on-the-ground collisions between airplanes and other vehicles, and pointing an accusatory finger at the Federal Aviation Administration. Apparently, we don't need to worry about air safety so much — we'd be better off concentrating on getting from the runway to baggage check in one piece. There are too many planes and attendant service vehicles on the ground at any given time, the NTSB reports, and that crush of traffic is making it harder for safety crews to keep planes (and service trucks) at a safe distance from one another. In fact, the number of incidents where a plane or ground vehicle wandered onto an active runway was up 27 percent (from 118 to 150) in the first five months of 2000, as compared to the same time period in 1999.

It's not that the FAA hasn't been trying; the agency has been working on a new computer system designed to handle the increased traffic. Unfortunately, the system is now 10 years late (and counting) — and has not inspired a great deal of confidence in anyone familiar with NTSB safety concerns. One particularly alarming flaw in the new system involves the procedure by which air traffic controllers warn pilots when a plane is on a collision course with, say, a catering truck: By the time both vehicles show up on the system, reaction time has been cut to seconds. Not the ideal situation if you're trying to stop a 150,000-pound 737.

OK, so we're not going to have a state-of-the-art radar system in the near future. What can be done in the meantime to make our runways safer? The NTSB has offered a string of suggestions, many of which are revolutionary in their simplicity: Controllers need to speak slowly and clearly, and pilots should come to a full stop before crossing any runways. Good thing these people went through intensive aviation training — otherwise, all of these complicated safety directives might be way over their heads.