FAA Makes International Headlines - US Investigators Warn Of Runway Crash

The ongoing dramas with the FAA and it's tired Air Traffic Controllers has reached international headlines with an Australian article from The Age about US investigators warning of an accident waiting to happen.

Here's what The Age article on runway incursions had to say:

"There is "a high risk of a catastrophic runway collision occurring in the United States" because of faltering federal leadership, malfunctioning technology and overworked air traffic controllers, congressional investigators concluded.

The investigators gave the Federal Aviation Administration credit for reducing runway safety incidents from a peak in 2001 but said "FAA's runway safety efforts subsequently waned" as the number of incidents settled at a lower level.

Then in fiscal year to September 30 2007, the incidents spiked to 370, or 6.05 runway incursions per one million air traffic control operations, almost returning to 2001's 407 incursions and 6.1 rate.

An incursion is any aircraft, vehicle or person that goes where it shouldn't be in space reserved for take-off or landing.

At this time, "no single office is taking charge of assessing the causes of runway safety problems and taking the steps needed to address those problems," the Government Accountability Office, the US Congress' investigative arm, said in the report.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters stepped into that leadership void in August by calling an industry-wide brainstorming conference to produce ideas for quick action.

In October, the FAA reported progress on steps recommended by the August conclave, particularly in speeding improved runway markings and pilot training.

The GAO report approved of those moves but also recommended more leadership from the FAA, improved data collection and a reduction in overtime required of air traffic controllers.
Even though serious incursions, where a collision was narrowly averted, declined to a record low 24 in 2007 from 31 the year before, the report said they have remained high enough since the FAA took its eye off the ball to represent a high risk of catastrophe.

Since 1990, 63 people have died in six US runway collisions. And the FAA's previous definition did not classify some serious runway errors as incursions, including an August 27, 2006, crash in Lexington, Kentucky, of a Comair jet that took off from a too-short runway, killing 49.

This year has seen some dramatic near-misses:

* On August 16, two commercial jets carrying 296 people came within 11 metres of colliding at Los Angeles International.

* A Delta Boeing 757 touched down in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on July 11 and had to take off immediately to avoid hitting a United Airbus A320 mistakenly on its runway.

* A Delta Boeing 737 landing at New York's LaGuardia airport on July 5 narrowly missed a commuter jet mistakenly cleared to cross its runway.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating those, two others in Denver and one in San Francisco.

The GAO seconded the transportation safety board's April recommendation that the FAA reduce mandatory overtime for controllers.

Since the FAA imposed a contract on the controllers union in 2006, experienced controllers have retired much faster than the agency predicted.

The FAA also cut controller staff to respond to traffic pattern changes from airline mergers and bankruptcies. The union says the cuts are too deep and reduce safety; the FAA says US air travel has never been safer.

The GAO said 52 per cent of controllers at the busiest US airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, regularly work six-day weeks.

Overall, between 20 per cent and 52 per cent of controllers at 25 FAA facilities, including seven of the 50 busiest towers, are on such weeks.

Nevertheless, "agency officials indicated that they had no plan to mitigate the effects of air traffic controller fatigue," the GAO said.

The GAO found that radar the FAA installed at 34 of the busiest airports to monitor aircraft on the ground does not work well when needed most - during heavy rain or snow.

FAA's more advanced ground-control radar, operational at only eight airports, issues false alerts of impending collisions - 41 from June 7, 2006, to May 16, 2007, at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International.

FAA's Office of Runway Safety has not produced a national runway safety plan since 2002, went two years without a permanent director and had a 45 per cent staff cut over the past four years, the GAO found."

So as you can see, the message is getting through to the rest of the world. But is the FAA listening?