WASHINGTON – Air travelers face a high risk of a catastrophic collision on U.S. airport runways because of faltering federal leadership, malfunctioning technology and overworked controllers, congressional investigators said Wednesday.
The investigators gave the Federal Aviation Administration credit for reducing runway safety incidents from a peak in 2001. But they said the agency’s “runway safety efforts subsequently waned” as the number of incidents settled at a lower level.
Then, in the 2007 budget year that ended Sept. 30, the incidents spiked to 370 – 6.05 incidents per 1 million air traffic control operations. That approached the level in 2001, when there were 407 runway incursions and a 6.1 rate. An incursion is any aircraft, vehicle or person that goes where it should not be in space reserved for takeoff or landing.
At this time, “no single office is taking charge of assessing the causes of runway safety problems and taking the steps needed to address those problems,” the Government Accountability Office said in a report requested by Rep. Jerry F. Costello, D-Ill., and Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J.
Then-Federal Aviation Administrator Marion Blakey stepped into that leadership void in August by calling an industrywide conference to produce ideas for quick action. In October, the FAA reported progress on recommendations from the conference, including speeding improved runway markings and pilot training. The GAO report approved of those moves but also recommended more leadership from the FAA, better data collection and less overtime required of controllers.
“This report makes clear that the Bush administration is cutting corners and failing to put passenger safety first,” Lautenberg said. “The FAA is taking too many chances and ignoring too many red flags.”
Serious incursions, where a collision was narrowly averted, declined to a record low 24 in 2007, compared with 31 the year before. But the report said they have stayed high enough to pose “a high risk of a catastrophic runway collision.”
In response to the report, the FAA said it had reached its goal of reducing the most serious incursions by almost 25 percent in 2007. The agency said the overtime was a short-term issue that could be resolved through stepped-up hiring.
Hiring is focusing on two dozen facilities with high overtime or six-day workweeks, according to the FAA, and a working group is studying whether scheduling changes could minimize fatigue.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said runway safety is a priority and the agency “is safely staffing all of its air traffic facilities.”
To Costello, “When there is great public attention and attention by the Congress, then the FAA acts. As soon as the attention goes away, the FAA reduces their attention.” He is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on aviation.
Since 1990, 63 people have died in six U.S. runway collisions. The FAA’s previous definition did not classify some serious runway errors as incursions, including an Aug. 27, 2006, crash in Lexington, Ky., of a Comair jet that took off from a too-short runway, killing 49.