Trouble on the Ground: Runway Incursions Rise

Millions of passengers fly each year, expecting to reach their destinations safely. While virtually all flights do arrive unscathed, many passengers do not realize the danger they may be in before they even reach the sky.

It happens on the ground … near-misses between planes on the runway.

There were 10 near-misses on airport runways between October and December 2007 — a fivefold increase from the same period last year, when there were only two.

The Government Accountability Office is keeping watch on the numbers, and is presenting its report today to the House Subcommittee on Aviation. The report especially urges the Federal Aviation Administration to step it up when it comes to runway safety.

Two of the 10 recent mishaps involved commercial jetliners. On Dec. 2, a Comair regional jet – departing from Baltimore-Washington International Airport — flew right over a landing USAirways Airbus A320. The two planes missed each other by about 300 feet. And on Dec. 6, two planes came within 200 to 400 feet of colliding at Newark Airport when a landing Continental jet flew off over a Continental Express plane that was taxiing on the same runway.

Runway incursions, as they're called, have long been a concern for aviation safety. The FAA has taken a number of steps to try to reduce them, and serious incidents are down from 53 in 2001 to 24 in 2007. But if this year's pace continues, there could be as many as 40 close calls in 2008.

The GAO has criticized the FAA for what it calls a serious lack of leadership on runway safety. The GAO found that the agency's National Runway Safety plan is out of date, and says the Runway Safety Office had been without a director for two years. A director was finally hired in August.

The GAO has also raised concerns about air traffic controller fatigue – pointing out that at least 20 percent of controllers at 25 air traffic control facilities are working six days a week.

Gary Britain, an air traffic controller in the Atlanta tower says, "It's a combination of more traffic and fatigue, the two things are you know, that is the perfect storm if you will, of a problem."

The National Transportation Safety Board has listed runway safety on its most-wanted list of transportation improvements more than a decade ago. The board wants equipment in the cockpit to warn pilots directly if a runway collision is imminent.

Right now, there are radar systems at dozens of airports that sound an alert in the tower. Controllers then have to warn the pilots. The NTSB is concerned that this takes too much time – and that pilots may get the warning too late to prevent a collision.

"The more operations we see, the greater potential there is for a catastrophic collision," NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker has warned.

Last August, the FAA announced a number of steps to reduce runway incidents – including improved markings at airports, and new pilot training on taxiing procedures. But the GAO and others are concerned that, despite these efforts, not enough is being done to prevent a tragedy on the ground.