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Planes urged to stop at runway intersections

The NTSB's recommendation to reduce collision hazards also could add to air traffic delays.

©Los Angeles Times

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 14, 2000


WASHINGTON -- A federal safety watchdog agency, alarmed by high numbers of near-collisions between planes on U.S. runways, Tuesday recommended that pilots stop at every runway intersection -- a move that could slow the pace of airport operations.

The National Transportation Safety Board also expanded its long-standing call for the Federal Aviation Administration to design a warning system that would keep planes from encroaching on one another while taxiing around an airport.

The FAA had no immediate response but said that it would take a close look at the safety board's recommendations. While the NTSB cannot order the agency to take action, most of its safety recommendations ultimately are adopted.

Serious runway safety violations that create a collision hazard for planes are a near-daily occurrence, with 321 incidents last year around the country. The problem worsened during the 1990s, as airport congestion grew.

"I find it disappointing that there are still few effective measures to deal with this dangerous problem," said safety board Chairman Jim Hall. "The record of runway accidents and incidents over the years continues to be a major cause for concern."

A key NTSB recommendation would require pilots to stop every time they reach a runway intersection and radio an air traffic controller for permission to cross.

Currently, pilots get clearance to taxi to their destinations on the airport surface and may cross any runways in between.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association -- representing private pilots -- has been pressing for the new rule recommended by the NTSB.

But controllers complain that the more restrictive procedures could add to their workload, clog radio frequencies and distract them from other duties. The airline industry is also likely to be cool to the proposal, since it could add to delays.

"Any time you require an additional task, you will take attention away from other tasks," said Thomas Farrier, safety coordinator for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Hall acknowledged those concerns. "It is not our intention to add unnecessary burdens," he said. However, he added, some modest delays and added work would not be too great a sacrifice to maintain safety.

The board also called for other changes in airport procedures, including making sure that, when a controller tells a pilot to stop at an intersection, the controller uses standard wording employed around the world.

The safety board also urged the installation of warning systems that would prevent runway incidents at all 382 airports handling regularly scheduled passenger flights. The FAA has been stymied in its efforts to develop such a system for the 34 busiest airports, despite nearly a decade of effort.

To underscore the urgency of its recommendations, the NTSB released dramatic simulations of near-misses at Chicago's O'Hare Airport and at Providence, R.I., last year. Many details of the incidents previously had been disclosed, but the animations were made all the more realistic by audio of the dialogue between controllers and pilots in the incidents.

In the near collision at Chicago, a terrified controller loudly screamed "Stop!" into his microphone as two Boeing 747s converged on a runway. A Korean Air flight was speeding toward takeoff, while a China Air jet that had gotten lost crossed the runway. The Korean Air pilot saw the other plane in time and lifted off, clearing the other jet as he banked to the left.

In the Providence incident, a United Boeing 757 landed and got lost in fog, nosing onto an active runway. A Federal Express Boeing 727 took off on that runway, safely clearing the United jet. Although the United pilot reported that another plane had just flown over, a controller cleared a US Airways flight to depart on the runway. The US Airways pilot, who had been listening to the radio exchanges, refused the clearance.

"I have a United that doesn't know where the hell he is," said the exasperated controller. "Stop all traffic."

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