- An aircraft on approach to Newark Liberty
International Airport tried this week to land on a
runway where a plane was waiting to take off, marking
the second such incident in little more than a month.
The planes in both episodes set off a radar warning
system that alerted air traffic controllers and allowed
them to reroute the incoming planes. Both occurred on
days when the airport was socked in by cloudy, rainy
"We never saw him," Newark air traffic controller
Russ Halleran said of the most recent incident, which
took place Tuesday. "We visually never saw him. The
equipment worked. Thank God we had it."
On Tuesday morning, bad weather had lowered the
ceiling to about 400 feet and visibility was about one
mile. Around 7 a.m., Air Transport International Flight
816 dropped through the clouds and lined up for a
landing on Runway 4-left.
"I was standing behind the controller working and all
of a sudden the ... zero alert blows off; it says runway
4-left is occupied," Halleran said. "The pilot was
basically chasing for the wrong runway. He was
definitely going to land on 4-left if we didn't get him
to come around."
And that could have been potentially deadly for the
passengers on a Continental Boeing 737 that was sitting
on the runway waiting to take off.
Instead, controllers had the Air Transport
International DC-8 circle and land on another runway.
Halleran said the planes were within a quarter-mile
of each other and about 200 feet from each other
vertically. Federal Aviation Administration officials
said the planes did not come close enough to warrant
classifying the incident as an "incursion," in which
planes come too close to planes or vehicles on the
Newark had three incursions in 2003 and two in 2002,
according to FAA figures. Nationwide, incursions dropped
to 324 in 2003 from 339 in 2002.
However, the National Transportation Safety Board has
kept the runway incursions on its "most wanted" safety
improvement list, saying the numbers nationwide are
still too high.
The FAA has worked to modernize its equipment to
provide a greater measure of runway safety, but
controllers say proposed cuts in the agency's budget
could hurt that progress.
"Our funds are going down, and we still have
equipment like this we need to put on line," Halleran
said. "Not having money for new controllers, staffing or
equipment, it's an ugly scenario."
On days such as Tuesday, when bad weather has
enveloped the airport, controllers lose the ability to
visually spot planes from their 335-foot-high perch in
the control tower. Instead, they rely on a bank of radar
systems to tell them what is coming and what is going.
The system that alerted controllers to Tuesday's
situation is called AMASS, or Airport Movement Area
The system works by taking data from the airport's
various radar systems and using it to determine
potential conflicts based on the position, velocity, and
acceleration of aircraft in the sky and on the ground.
"AMASS was installed to enhance safety, particularly
in weather like we had [Tuesday]," said FAA spokeswoman
Arlene Salac. "It's a safety enhancement. Nothing can
replace the job the controllers do, but it's a tool that
enhances the level of safety."
The system also proved its mettle on March 6 at
Newark Liberty, when it helped controllers reroute an
inbound cargo plane that also was lined up with the
incorrect runway where a British Airways plane stood
waiting to take off.
The FAA began deploying the AMASS system in 2001, and
it is now at Newark Liberty, Kennedy International, and
La Guardia airports. However, not all airports
nationwide have the system, Salac said.