Monday, June 26, 2000

Chance of accidents escalating

Cincinnati has good record, despite a scare

By Amy Higgins
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It has happened only once in the past two years — but federal regulators meeting today in Washington, D.C., want to ensure it never happens again.

        Two Comair planes almost collided on a runway at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport last month when one started to take off without clearance from air-traffic controllers.

        The departing plane aborted its takeoff and avoided hitting the other plane taxiing across the runway. No one was hurt.

        But four people weren't so lucky last March at the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, when one small plane entered the runway in the path of another speeding up for takeoff. The four victims were among the 63 killed in U.S. runway accidents since 1990.

        Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials say runway collisions and the potential for such accidents are escalating as technology and human error fail to keep up with a bursting aviation industry. The number of so-called runway incursions was 71 percent greater in 1999 than in 1993.

        In response to the concern, the FAA will hold a Runway Safety National Summit today through Wednesday in Washington to explore ways of reducing those numbers and making runways safer.

        More than 500 aviation experts at the three-day conference will focus on the recommendations of nine regional workshops, a human factors symposium and other industry-wide activities now under way to improve runway safety.

        The group will look at new technology and extra training sessions for pilots and air-traffic controllers. Similar measures have been started at some airports — and are being credited with lowering the number of run way incidents during the past six months.

        The conference was called after the FAA was criticized by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Transportation Department's inspector general at a congressional hearing a week after the Sarasota mishap.

        “It is just a matter of time before we have a disastrous runway collision if more is not done to address this issue soon,” said Jim Hall,

        chairman of NTSB, which has pressured the FAA for 15 years to use better warning systems to prevent ground collisions.

        Mr. Hall, however, noted that one such device — the Airport Movement Area Safety System, which has been years in development — might not be as good as officials had originally hoped. He told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation that in a test of the system, it warned flight crews and controllers of an impending ground collision — but gave them just six seconds to avoid it.

        Despite last month's Comair incident here (an airline spokeswoman says it is still under investigation), Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport has some of the safest runways in the country.

        Roughly 580 flights will depart today from the airport in Boone County. About an equal number will land. That's a takeoff or landing about every 90 seconds.

        None of the Tristate's regional airports ranks on the FAA's list of the top 30 airports with runway safety concerns. The numbers for 1999 and 2000, the latest available from the FAA, show:

        • Cincinnati, Louisville and Lexington airports each had one incursion.

        • Indianapolis International Airport had two (one for each year).

        • And Port Columbus In ternational Airport reported none.

        “These numbers are extremely low, especially for a busy airport like Cincinnati,” said Kathleen Bergen, an FAA spokeswoman in Atlanta.

        The FAA defines an incursion as any incident “that involves an aircraft, vehicle, person or object on the ground that creates a collision hazard or results in loss of separation (getting too close) with an aircraft taking off, intending to take off, landing, or intending to land.”

        Airports with major runway safety concerns tend to be on the West Coast, led by John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif., with 12 incursions from May 1999 to May 2000.

        The worst accident in the history of commercial aviation occurred on a runway, when a KLM Boeing 747 took off on top of a Pan Am 747 at Tenerife in the Canary Islands in 1977, killing 583 people.


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