Runway Safety Debated on Anniversary of Deadly Crash

Safe as the skies may be for planes when in the air, on the ground poses significant risk, as former pilot Robert Bragg learned firsthand 30 years ago during the worst airport runway accident in history, when two planes collided in the Canary Islands.

Bragg, a former Pan American World Airlines co-pilot, spoke to the National Transportation Safety Board Tuesday at a safety forum in Washington, D.C., to recall the moment when his 747 was taxiing at Los Rodeos Airport and a KLM jumbo jet came barreling down the runway for its takeoff.

"I could see all the way to the tail of the airplane like somebody had just taken a big knife and sliced the top of the airplane off," he said.

The KLM airplane's landing gear ripped into Bragg's jet, and 538 people from each plane were killed.

Tuesday, the NTSB met to discuss safety solutions, as runway incursions are on the rise at airports. Last year there were 330 airport near-misses, 31 of them serious.

"Runway incursions are where people are not where they are supposed to be with airplanes on the surface of a busy airport, and this unfortunately has been a festering problem for so long I'm afraid it's where our next potential major accident may be," said ABC News aviation analyst John Nance.

Frustrations Over Stalled Technology

There have been numerous plans put forth to make airports safer but none have been implemented. One considered by the Federal Aviation Administration is to place a GPS map system into cockpits to show pilots where their aircraft is on the airfield.

"We use it in our cars to know exactly where we are, and it has been a real safety breakthrough," said FAA administrator Marion Blakey.

But the system doesn't show pilots where other planes are on the runway. In response, the NTSB has complained to the Federal Aviation Administration that it is moving too slowly to adapt new systems.

"This is actually one of the roles of the NTSB," Nance said, "to be independent enough to say, 'I don't care what your financial problems are or what your worries are -- get it done.'"

The most recent runway incursion occurred 10 weeks ago in Denver, when a commuter plane rolled onto the runway as a Frontier jet prepared to land. The two aircraft missed each other by little more than 50 feet.

"We've been very fortunate so far," said NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker. "We can't continue to run our national air system on luck."

ABC's David Kerley originally reported this story for "World News With Charles Gibson."

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...