NEWSCLIP-1997-10-16: FAA Shifts on Runway Danger, Vows to Find Solution

[NOTE: this article appears to be a precursor, prior to release of the NCARC report…]

David Dietz, Chronicle Staff Writer

1997-10-16 04:00:00 PDT Washington — In a major turnabout, the Federal Aviation Administration acknowledged yesterday that it is worried about the rising number of near-misses on the nation’s runways and pledged to help find solutions.

Previously, the agency has downplayed a 50 percent increase in runway mishaps since 1993 and defended its program for dealing with incidents ranging from planes hitting airport vehicles to near-misses between speeding aircraft.

But during a two-day runway strategy meeting that ended yesterday, Jeff Griffith, the FAA’s program director for air traffic operations, said the jump in incidents is “just not acceptable” and vowed the agency’s support for a new industry effort to control the problem.

“We’re all focusing on coming up with a few specific recommendations,” he said in an interview outside the conference, which the FAA sponsored with a research firm that has studied runway incidents. “We want to turn the rate back around.”

The agency has been under pressure to act recently. Auditors from the Department of Transportation’s inspector general’s office are close to concluding a report that is expected to attack the FAA for shortcomings in its runway safety effort.

The FAA also has been under fire from pilots and air traffic controllers, who argue that even though the agency has taken steps to reduce mishaps, hazards ranging from ill-lighted planes to poorly designed airport intersections still create a peril to travelers.

In recent months, the sharp increase in mishaps has been the subject of a series of articles in The Chronicle. Since 1990, five fatal crashes have occurred on the ground, including a 1991 collision in Los Angeles that killed 34 people.

The two-day conference, attended by about 400 FAA representatives, pilots, controllers and airline industry officials, ended with the creation of a study group to quickly devise a short list of runway remedies. The group is expected to rely heavily on a study done by the Mitre Corp., the consulting group that helped stage the strategy session.

Mitre issued reports in 1994 and 1996 that recommended sweeping improvements in runway safety. They ranged from clearer communications between cockpit crews and airport tower controllers to added runway training for pilots.

Despite the FAA’s new pledge to help reduce mishaps, some observers were skeptical of any significant action.

“I figured it was a waste of time,” said Ross Sagun, who attended the meeting as chairman of the air traffic control committee of the Air Line Pilots Association. “My complaint is the same as it was before — there’s a lot of talk and no action.”

Runway mishaps reached 284 last year, the highest in at least a decade, and the rate of incidents per 100,000 takeoffs and landings is rising as well. For the first six months of 1997, incidents were up 16 percent over the comparable period in 1996.

Two close calls occurred within the past two weeks. In Cleveland on October 8, members of the Indians baseball team had a fright when the pilot of their Baltimore- bound Continental Airlines charter jet attempted to take off on the wrong runway.

The October 8 mishap, which occurred several hours after the Indians had eliminated theNew York Yankees from the American League playoffs, is under investigation by the FAA.

In Sarasota, Fla., an even closer incident occurred two days before the Cleveland mishap, the pilots association said yesterday. A departing Delta jet reportedly missed a small plane by 50 feet when a controller forgot that he had given the private aircraft permission to practice takeoffs and landings on a runway that intersected with the jet’s departure.

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