Published April 10, 2006|
December's fatal accident at 80-year-old
Midway Airport was a frightful reminder that Chicago's South Side airport has
no buffer zone. Its mile-square footprint is far smaller than those of newer airports,
and it's surrounded by homes, businesses and busy roadways.
So, as Southwest
Airlines Flight 1248 skidded beyond a snow-slickened runway and plowed through
a perimeter fence before striking a vehicle carrying Joshua Woods, 6, there was
no room for error and little to slow the jet's motion.
That could soon
change. The city is asking the Federal Aviation Administration for approval and
funding to install crushable concrete beds at the ends of the runways. These beds,
made of lightweight concrete, collapse under a jet's weight. Its tires sink into
the bed, which absorbs its forward motion energy and provides swift deceleration
as it rolls through the concrete.
This is a no-brainer for Midway. Deceleration
beds have long been the best alternative to the very expensive ($200 million to
$300 million) prospect of buying enough land to extend the runways.
why weren't such beds already in place? Although Midway had gone 33 years without
a fatality involving an airplane before December's accident, the risks have grown
along with the soaring number of flights at Midway in recent years. Last
year, there were an average 800 daily takeoffs and landings at Midway--more than
500 of those were commercial flights--and 18 million passengers passed through
its 43 gates.
The reason is that, until recently, those concrete beds
weren't considered feasible on space-constrained runways. Minimum setbacks of
75 feet from runways' ends were needed to protect the bricks from being damaged
by jet-engine blast during takeoffs. Unless Midway's already-short runways were
further shortened, its proposed setbacks would be just 35 feet. But the Pennsylvania
company that makes the crushable concrete, ESCO, recently developed a coating
that protects the bricks from jet-blast damage--even with the shorter setbacks.
The concrete beds, with the new coating, were successfully installed at the
end of runways last year at New York's LaGuardia Airport, which also has limited
room and short setbacks. The FAA says crushable beds have been installed at 14
U.S. airports, with plans in the works at four additional airports. Three times
over the last six years, the beds have prevented airplane overruns (and passenger
injuries or worse) at JFK International Airport in New York.
a proven technology and, with the new ability to prevent jet-blast damage, one
that now will give Midway some additional margin for error. The FAA is "very
encouraged" by the city's proposal to install such beds, calling it "a
step in the right direction." The cost is estimated to be about $40 million,
although the city will seek federal funding for as much as 80 percent of that.
After December's accident, Mayor Richard Daley praised Midway's safety record
and insisted no changes were needed. So this proposal is an about-face for City
Hall. Good. What happened to Joshua Woods shouldn't happen again. from
about-face, city requests runway buffer zone
Tribune transportation reporter
Published April 5, 2006
Four months after a plane slid off a runway at Midway Airport,
Chicago submitted plans to the federal government Tuesday to build beds of crushable
concrete at the ends of Midway's runways to slow planes that overrun their landings.
The city's request to the Federal Aviation Administration for approval and
funding for the key safety initiative comes after a Southwest Airlines plane skidded
off a slick runway during a snowstorm Dec. 8 and struck vehicles on Central Avenue.
Joshua Woods, a 6-year-old Indiana boy, was killed when the Boeing 737-700
crushed the car he and his family were riding in.
begin as early as this year on the aircraft-arresting system if the FAA approves
the plan, said Erin O'Donnell, the city's managing deputy aviation commissioner
"We believe we can solve this safety issue within the
confines of the airport using the aircraft-arrester beds," O'Donnell said.
"No additional land needs to be acquired."
The system is made
of light, foamlike bricks of cellular concrete material designed to
collapse under aircraft weight, absorb the
forward energy of the plane and provide a quick, controlled deceleration.
Approaching Runway 4L
at Midway Airport
material is strong enough to walk on, permitting passengers and crew to exit an
aircraft safely and for the plane to be removed without damage, according to the
manufacturer, Engineered Arresting Systems Corp.
The bricks would be
laid out in rows of about 200 to 300 feet long, depending on how much space exists
at the end of each runway.
The FAA has approved similar systems at 14
airports, and seven more are being planned or designed, officials said.
FAA officials said Tuesday that they are encouraged by Chicago's proposal, calling
it "a step in the right direction." But the agency needs time to evaluate
the plan, said FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro.
He said the agency would
want to test how the shorter length of the concrete beds would slow or stop different
types of planes at varying speeds. The standard aircraft-arresting system extends
up to 600 feet at airports with the room.
To get FAA approval, Midway
will need to receive special clearances to relocate navigational equipment at
the ends of the runways--4 Right, 22 Left, 13 Center and 31 Center--where the
aircraft-arresting system would be installed. Those runways accommodate the Boeing
757, the largest plane serving Midway, a 1-square-mile airport surrounded by neighborhoods.
Also, the aircraft-arresting system installed at Midway would be set back
about 35 feet from the end of each runway, only about half the standard minimum
distance of 75 feet. This would create challenges to protect the rows of soft
bricks from the jet-engine blast of planes taking off every day.
officials expressed confidence that a protective coating that has been successfully
tested at LaGuardia Airport in New York can be used at Midway to preserve the
"The city would like to move forward with the installation
... at Midway," Patrick Harney, Chicago's acting aviation commissioner, wrote
in a letter dated Tuesday to Jeri Alles, FAA airport division manager in the Midwest.
"The city requests that the FAA reserve the appropriate grant funding for
the city's forthcoming grant application."
The proposed improvements
at Midway would cost up to $40 million, the city estimates.
among almost 300 U.S. commercial airports that do not comply with the FAA's minimum
1,000-foot safety zone at the ends of runways to provide extra protection to planes
that overshoot their landings. Congress recently passed a law requiring all airports
to comply or provide alternative safety methods by 2015.
Midway cannot expand to provide 1,000-foot safety zones, the city told the FAA
Midway's longest runway, 31 Center, where the Southwest accident
occurred, is 6,522 feet--already considered short by modern airport standards.
Reducing the length of any Midway runway has been ruled out.
estimated it would cost $200 million to $300 million to acquire the property off
the airport needed to build runway safety areas. The city said it would require
condemning 350 to 700 residential buildings and 80 to 130 commercial buildings.
The aircraft-arresting system was considered the next-best alternative.
Yet the runway safety enhancements now planned at Midway reflect an about-face
on the city's part.
After the Southwest accident in December, Mayor Richard
Daley defended Midway's "wonderful record of safety" and said no changes
were warranted due to one major accident.
City aviation officials also
said that based on FAA criteria, it was not practical to construct standard 1,000-foot
runway safety areas or a standard 600-foot aircraft-arresting system at the space-constrained
The Southwest accident is under investigation by the National
Transportation Safety Board. A fact-finding hearing may be held this summer, officials
Planes overrunning runways have posed serious safety threats at
airports worldwide. Seven planes have skidded off runways in the U.S. and Canada
from October 2004 to February 2006, killing eight people and injuring 34 others,
In March 2000, a Southwest plane ran off the end of a runway
in Burbank, Calif., smashed through a blast fence and came to rest on a highway
outside the airport. There were no serious injuries. The Burbank airport later
installed an aircraft-arresting system.
One of the worst recent accidents
occurred in June 1999, when an American Airlines jetliner overran the runway at
the Little Rock National Airport in Arkansas, killing the captain and 10 passengers.
Three potentially deadly accidents have been averted at Kennedy International
Airport in New York thanks to the aircraft-arresting system, the FAA said.
An expert on disaster planning said he is not surprised that Chicago reconsidered
its past position and now wants to install the new system.
mayor's comment that a crash like the Southwest incident had never happened before
at Midway is really not the best way to reduce the risk," said Gunnar Kuepper,
chief of operations at Emergency & Disaster Management Inc., a California-based
consulting agency for government and private firms.
"You must find
a balance between the costs of safety and the benefits of reducing risk. Either
that, or you stop flying."