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Report Finds High Risk of Catastrophic Runway Collisions

December 12, 2007

Congressional investigators issued a report on December 5, 2007 concluding there is a "high risk" of "catastrophic runway collisions" at U.S. airports. The report followed a week of near misses on the nation' runways. Just one day earlier, two planes nearly collided at Newark Liberty International Airport. Days earlier, two planes, carrying more than 200 passengers, narrowly missed each other on a runway at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Although the number of runway safety incidents is down from its peak in 2001 at 407, the number of incidents climbed back to 370 in fiscal 2007. The report, issued by the Government Accounting Office (GAO), cited ineffective leadership, malfunctioning technology, and overworked traffic controllers as reasons for the danger.

Inneffective Federal Leadership on Runway Safety

The GAO report found no governmental office is taking charge for assessing causes of runway safety problems (let alone on how to fix them). Until recently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) went two years without a permanent director and 45 percent of its staff was cut in the past four years. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), whose responsibility includes investigating major transportation accidents like plane crashes, held an industry-wide brainstorming conference this past summer to produce ideas for quick action. The FAA reported that progress was made on the recommendations from this conference. Although the GAO report approved the recommendations, the report found more leadership is needed from the FAA.

Malfunctioning Runway Safety Technology

The GAO report found that radar technology installed by the FAA at the 34 busiest airports is faulty. The radar, which is designed to monitor aircraft on the ground, does not work well during heavy rain and snow---the time when monitoring is needed the most. The FAA ground-control radar at eight airports, including Hartsfield-Jackson International, has issued many false alerts of impending collisions. These false warning can also pose a danger.

Dangers of Overworked Traffic Controllers

The GAO report found air traffic controllers are being overworked, placing them under great stress and fatigue. Ever since the FAA imposed a contract on the Controllers' union in 2006, many experienced controllers have retired than then the agency expected. The FAA' staffing cuts have also increased the strain. The controllers union says the cuts are too deep and reduce passenger safety. Citing the GAO report concerns, National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Patrick Forrey recently questioned, "how much more do we have to hear before the FAA is held accountable for the blatant disregard for safety it is showing by understaffing its facilities, working controllers past their breaking points and refusing to work with us to settle an ongoing contract negotiating impasse that has created the largest mass exodus of both veteran controllers and trainees we have seen since 1981."

Some congressional leaders blame the Bush administration for cutting corners and failing to put safety first. Representative James Oberstar, D-Minnesota, has urged approval of a House passed FAA bill that would provide additional funds toward runway safety and contract negotiations with controllers; however, the Bush administration opposes the bill. "This report makes clear that the bush administration is cutting corners and failing to put passenger safety first," said Senator Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ.

One hopes it will not take a runway catastrophe for the federal government to take the steps needed to improve runway safety.

Posted by Jason M. Kroot, Chicago Personal Injury Attorney of Kroot Law, LLC

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