Trouble on the Ground
Security and overcrowding are concerns at LAX, but this summer they’re going to begin fixing the little problem of planes hitting each other

~ By JON LEWIS-KATZ ~

 

It was the first day of February 1991. An LAX air traffic controller gave a USAir Boeing 737 clearance to land on one of the airport’s four runways. On the same runway, a SkyWest Fairchild Metroliner awaited takeoff. When the Boeing 737 landed, it crushed the SkyWest aircraft, killing 34 people, including all those aboard the smaller plane.

That may have been 15 years ago, but airport administrators haven’t forgotten. Since 2000, the airport has spent over $30 million to increase runway safety and leave those collisions in the past.

But runway “incursions” – or events that create collisions or hazards that could lead to collision – continue to be an issue. LAX, which is not the nation’s busiest airport, had 34 runway incursions between 2001 and 2004, more than any other airport in the U.S., according to the 2001-2004 FAA Runway Safety Report, the most recent report available on the Federal Aviation Administration’s website.

This July, the airport will break ground on a $338 million redesign of a troublesome pair of runways on the El Segundo side of the facility, which officials hope will greatly reduce the risk of incursion incidents. The airport plans to move the southernmost runway 55 feet from the runway adjacent. A new centerline taxiway will allow arriving planes to proceed to terminals along an inner runway where they will be less likely to collide with departing planes.

LAX’s new blueprint is the result of a three-year research study that ended in 2003. The project, however, was stalled by studies, reports, committees, and a lawsuit, and only received the go-ahead in December 2005.

All setbacks aside, the redesign has now picked up a great deal of support. The FAA is providing two grants for the runway redesign and two major aviation associations, the Air Transport Association and the Air Line Pilots Association, have backed the project.

But, like all things involving LAX, the project remains controversial. Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of engineering at the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California, believes the airport has ameliorated but not resolved the problem. He wants the FAA, the city of Los Angeles, commercial airlines, and LAX’s managing body – Los Angeles World Airports – to discuss long-term solutions.

“The solution to runway incursions will not be a quick fix like a simple redesign, but an all-encompassing methodology which addresses the physical layout as well as issues of policy and procedure,” he wrote in an unpublished op-ed obtained by CityBeat.

Even Air Transport Association Executive Air Safety Chairman Terry McVenes has expressed concern, while applauding the airport’s recent efforts. “There’s certainly room for improvement on this issue,” he said, “especially in the case of Los Angeles.”

Officials at LAX and the FAA downplay the safety issue, contending that travelers should not be concerned about runway incursions. FAA regional spokesman Allen Kenitzer wrote in an e-mail that the L.A. airport has not had a serious runway mishap in the last 12 months and had only six minor incidents between May 24, 2005, and July 28, 2005. “I can say that surface safety is a very high concern of the Federal Aviation Administration, and one of the goals in the FAA Flight Plan is to ‘reduce the risk of runway incursions.’”

Additionally, LAX public relations „12 representative Tom Winfrey admitted the need to also renovate the pair of runways north of the terminal, though only the southern pair will be modified for now. “It was just decided that [the south] one needed the attention first,” he said.

Increasing runway safety poses difficult and complex problems for airports because there are no universally applicable, pre-packaged solutions. Each facility has a unique design and, therefore, its own set of circumstances that affect runway safety.

Ultimately, mishaps are usually caused by what Winfrey calls “predominately human factors.” The collision in 1991, for instance, was caused by an error on the part of the air traffic controller. From 2001 to 2004, most of LAX’s incidents were the result of pilot error.

“Every time there’s been a runway incursion … it’s because humans have done something improper,” said Michael L. Barr, an aviation safety expert at USC.

But other factors, such as the flaws in LAX’s runway design and coastal L.A.’s frequent fog, increase the likelihood that human errors will occur.

In his op-ed, USC’s Meshkati wrote, “Incursion accidents represent the deadliest mishaps in the civil aviation industry.” And worse yet, Meshkati said in a phone interview, incursion accidents are risks that are largely unknown to the masses.

“Because the public is detached from the problem and where it’s happening, and the media is not doing a good job of covering it, it’s staying in the dark corners,” he said. “It’s not a typical aviation safety problem … because there is not one single culprit in this situation.”

In response, Kenitzer wrote, “Runway safety information is available to the public on the FAA website, and is well covered in the press on a frequent basis.”

Part of the reason runway incursions are not discussed is because most are near-missed or are fender-benders that do not result in injury or death. Between 2001 and 2004, runway incursions in the U.S. resulted in only five collisions. None led to fatalities.

More than half of LAX’s 34 incursions between 2001 and 2004 were classified by the FAA as Category D, meaning that they posed “little or no chance of collision.”

“What are the odds of [a fatal collision] happening? – they are almost minuscule. The problem is that when it does happen, there’s catastrophic results,” Barr said.

In 1977, for example, two Boeing 747’s collided on the runway of Los Rodeos Airport in Tenerife, killing 583 people. A collision at Milan’s Linate Airport in 2001 between a Scandinavian Airlines MD-87 and a Cessna business jet left 118 dead, including four people in a baggage claim area struck by wreckage.

Furthermore, runway incursions in the Western Pacific region rose last year to 89, up from 84 in 2004, according to FAA data. There were 42 runway incursions nationwide in January and February alone.

During the runway renovation, LAX will operate at just 75 percent of its capacity, though Winfrey insists this won’t create any inconveniences for travelers, even during the increasingly busy summer months.

The redesign of LAX’s runways is also part of a larger plan to accommodate the next generation of aircraft, the Airbus 380, a “super-jet” that seats approximately 555 passengers. Six gates will be added to the Tom Bradley International Terminal in time for the arrival of the big planes in 2007.

from this link        06-22-06

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