O'Hare Runway Incidents Worry Experts

MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C., March 27, 2006


Plaintiffs' aviation attorney and former Transportation Department Inspector General Mary Schiavo, on The Early Show Monday (CBS/The Early Show)

 

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"Sometimes the air traffic controllers simply cannot see all the operations on the runway, and that's why the new equipment would actually give the pilots a warning."

Plaintiffs' aviation attorney and former Transportation Department Inspector General Mary Schiavo, on The Early Show Monday

 

 
(CBS/AP) Two federal agencies are investigating how commercial planes nearly collided twice in two days on runways at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

Pilots aborted takeoffs on Tuesday and Thursday to avoid colliding with other aircraft, the Federal Aviation Administration said. No one was injured.

"Both incidents look to be air traffic controller errors," FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said Friday.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which typically responds only to fatal accidents, also will investigate, because the incidents were "major" enough, said spokeswoman Lauren Peduzzi.

On Tuesday, two planes were mistakenly instructed to take off at the same time on crisscrossing runways and came within 100 feet of each other before their takeoffs were aborted.

On Thursday, one plane was sent to taxi across a runway where another plane had already started its take-off roll. Those planes came within 600 feet of each other.

So far this year, four so-called "runway incursions," not counting last week's incidents, have occurred. All have been ruled controller errors.

There were seven incursions last year out of 972,246 flights, the FAA said. Five were caused by controller errors, one by pilot error and one by an errant vehicle.

According to the Chicago Tribune, which cites airport officials, the runway safety technology the FAA has deployed at O'Hare has no capability to recognize traffic on intersecting runways. The equipment, called the Airport Movement Area Safety System (A-MASS), alerts controllers to a potential collision with as little as eight seconds of warning, leaving little time for controllers to radio the warnings to pilots.

On The Early Show Monday, plaintiffs' aviation attorney and former Transportation Department Inspector General Mary Schiavo told co-anchor Rene Syler the bottom line is there are too many planes in the sky and not enough automated prevention systems on the ground.
"It's been an ongoing controversy with O'Hare and several other airports," Schiavo said. "The problem is we have (A-MASS). It doesn't work sometimes in rain or fog or inclement weather. It also doesn't give the clearest picture possible. That's one of the things the NTSB will be looking into. Was that equipment working?

"There's newer equipment, called ASDE-X (Airport Surface Detection Equipment Model X) that would provide better warnings, actually a screen. You'd see it on your computer screen. But we don't have that at O'Hare. We only have that at four airports in the country, and they're not among the top four busiest. Air traffic controllers do make errors, and this equipment is supposed to help. But we just don't have it yet."

"Sometimes," Schiavo continued, "the air traffic controllers simply cannot see all the operations on the runway, and that's why the new equipment would actually give the pilots a warning.

"It's a very, very serious situation. Other airports, like Los Angeles and some of the other large airports, also have this runway incursion problem. But the newer airports, like Denver, don't. They have a better configuring of the runways. But to rely on the pilots in (the airports without the newer configurations) is not a good solution because the pilots must obey the air traffic controllers."

What's holding up the installation of the newer equipment at airports that need it?

"It was a money thing," Schiavo said. "They also had a lot of glitches in the development. It was a sophisticated computer program. There were several government investigations into why it took so long to develop it.

"But the older airports like O'Hare, which are hemmed in, have the problem. Newer ones don't have so much of a problem. It is system wide. Traffic is up. The number of aircraft is up this year. So it's a problem we'll see in the future as we get more and more small aircraft, too. Those are dramatically increasing."

In the long run, Schiavo advocated, we need to stuff fewer planes in the system, and the country as a whole needs to spend what's necessary to complete the ground collision avoidance systems so there can be automated collision avoidance. Finally, she said, the United States really does need more airports.