By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer
HEBRON - Close calls between airplanes and other planes, people or objects on the runways at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport are down for the last year.
Airport, airline and air traffic controller representatives are crediting a renewed emphasis on training along with a new radar system installed last year.
The Federal Aviation Administration reports only three such "incursions" since the beginning of 2002, although all took place in the last seven months. That's a big reduction from 2000, when the airport had four such incidents in less than six months.
The most recent such incident was March 30 - a plane came within 6,000 feet of hitting an airport fire department vehicle doing a routine runway inspection.
"Actually, zero is something that is acceptable to us, but this is getting there," said Darryl Collins, the FAA's local air traffic chief. "Even though there has been reduction, we're not satisfied with the results yet. We'd like to go a year or two, and we're always going to be on top of it."
In 2000, the local airport was listed as one of the nation's worst for incursions. That was about the time that the FAA also made the issue a national priority, as the incidents were causing accidents and even deaths elsewhere.
Between 1997 and 2001, there were 1,359 such events nationally. The incursions have taken 63 lives since 1990, none of them here.
Close calls have been down for the past two years locally. One of the last three was due to pilot error, the other two were deemed the fault of the air traffic controller involved. The recently devised ranking system said that the first two were not very serious (grade C on an A-D scale); the most recent has yet to be graded.
Nationally, there have been 358 incidents in the past 12 months, with Long Beach's airport registering nine incursions, and Los Angeles six. There were 381 in 2001.
Collins pointed to the installation of the new Airport Movement Area Safety System last June as a reason for the decline.
The $4 million system was recently upgraded to include codes to identify planes and vehicles to provide more precision. The FAA is spending $160 million overall to install the new ground level radar in the nation's 40 busiest airports. Using the movement monitor "has become something that is part of the routine for all our controllers, and we're used to using it," Collins said.
None of the recent incursions was during the winter, when the airport had to deal with a season of heavy snow. At any given time during the snow season, there could be up to 20 vehicles on the runways and ramps.
"We have really reinforced our training with all our employees, and continue to make this a priority," said Dale Keith, the airport's director of operations.
Erlanger-based Comair, which operates the most flights at the airport with about 314 takeoffs every day, was involved in all three incursions, but none of its pilots was found at fault.
The one pilot error was blamed on the pilot of a Northwest Airlink flight, who missed exiting on a taxiway and crossed a runway without authorization.
Comair spokesman Nick Miller would not comment on the specific incidents, but said that in general, pilots can be brought in for retraining any time after an event, depending on the circumstances.
In addition, the company and the control tower instituted a new call sign system in late 2000 that continues to eliminate confusion that had previously been possible.
"We put a lot of emphasis on situational awareness with our pilots and that continues to be the case," Miller said. "We are always striving to create an understanding of the conditions that may contribute to a potential situation occurring."
Details of close calls since 2002
Here are the particulars of what happened in the past three "incursions," or close calls between airplanes and other planes, vehicles or persons on the runways of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport since January 2002.
Sept. 13, 2002, incident
What happened: Northwest Airlink Flight 5900, a Canadair regional jet, landed to the south on a north/south runway and was instructed to turn left onto one of two taxiways. The pilot passed both taxiways and crossed the east/west runway without authorization. Comair Flight 311, another Canadair Regional Jet, was cleared for takeoff to the west on the east/west runway and just started rolling when clearance was canceled. Flight 5900 cleared the east/west runway and the Comair plane stopped approximately 2,000 feet from the runway intersection.
At fault: Pilot error
Grade: C (incursions are given a grade A-D, with A being the most severe and D meaning no risk of a collision)
Oct. 7, 2002, incident
What happened: Air traffic control cleared Comair Flight 722, a Canadair regional jet, to land to the north on a north/south runway. Between two departures from the east/west runway, controllers crossed an aircraft while Delta Flight 769, an MD-80, taxied into position to take off to the west. After the aircraft crossed the east/west runway, controllers cleared DAL 769 for departure with Comair 722 now on final approach to the north/south runway, which crosses the east-west runway. The controllers canceled the Delta flight's take-off clearance, but it had already begun takeoff roll. The Delta flight aborted and traveled 1,500 feet total and was at idle thrust when the Comair flight passed through the intersection of the two runways. Closest proximity was 2,500 feet horizontal.
At fault: operational (controller) error
March 30, 2003, incident
What happened: Controllers cleared Comair Flight 843, a Canadair regional jet, for take-off on the east/west runway from the eastern end. Controllers then cleared an airport fire department vehicle onto the east/west runway on the western end for a routine inspection. The vehicle traveled approximately 500 feet down the runway before it exited onto a taxiway. The Comair flight did not overfly the vehicle. Airport Movement Area Safety System radar made an alert, but departure clearance for the Comair flight was not canceled. Closest separation was 6,000 feet horizontal.
At fault: operational (controller) error
Grade: To be determined.
Source: Federal Aviation Administration
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