FAA aiming to cut risks on runways

Agency wants $30 million for mission

Posted: Wednesday, September 13, 2000

Just as pilot Felix Maguire was about to touch down in Point Hope, north of Kotzebue, a commercial plane almost nosed onto the runway from a taxiway.

The commercial pilot hadn't been using the proper radio frequency to pick up Maguire's approach, and he didn't wonder why the runway lights, triggered by Maguire, had come on.

"That's bad pilot training," said Maguire of the incident two years ago.

The Federal Aviation Administration is seeking $30 million from Congress to reduce the hazards of people, vehicles, objects and planes colliding on runways. That's up from $3 million this fiscal year and nothing in previous years.

The money could be spent on training pilots, ground crews and air traffic controllers, and installing fences, signs and lighting at airports.

Pilots support runway safety, but some think the money could be better spent on basics such as more staffing at the FAA's flight service stations, said Maguire, a spokesman for the 1,200-member Alaska Airmen's Association.

Those flight service stations are the only source of weather and air traffic information for pilots who fly into Alaska's many airports that don't have control towers.

"They should be putting money into the basic things before putting money into a lot of this," he said of the runway safety program.

The Juneau Airport has had few runway incursions or surface incidents in recent years, FAA officials said. Incidents are unauthorized movements on the runway. Incursions are incidents that create a collision hazard.

Pedestrians or vehicles have entered the runway inappropriately eight times since 1988, the last incident being in 1996, said Steve Turner, who manages the FAA control tower in Juneau. Pilots have taken their planes onto the runway when other planes or objects were there three times since 1997, he said.

But the numbers don't convey the threat. The landing of an Alaska Airlines jet while a snowplow truck was working on the runway edge, in November 1999 in Juneau, could have ended in disaster for the 58 people onboard and the truck operators. The plane veered sharply and missed the truck by 32 feet, federal investigators said.

Meanwhile, at Anchorage's small-plane airport, Merrill Field, tourists in a mobile home drove on the runway, apparently looking for a nearby shopping mall, and an elderly man with a cane walked across a runway.

"You'd think everybody would be aware this is a runway, you shouldn't go there. But you'd be surprised," said Jack Schommer, who leads a FAA runway incursion team in Alaska.

FAA officials from Washington, D.C., and Alaska didn't see any structural problems with Juneau Airport's runway and taxiway on a tour Tuesday. Steve Shaffer, who represents a runway safety team from the FAA's Washington headquarters, said he didn't see anything that needed alteration.

The airport has made some operational changes in response to the near collision in November. The control tower is staffed longer hours, to cover all Alaska Airlines flights. And snowplows face oncoming air traffic when possible.

But Ralph Sanford, who heads the airport's field maintenance, wants the FAA to require pilots to contact the airport before approaching it when the control tower is closed.

"We've had close calls with our people out there," Sanford told FAA officials Tuesday at an agency meeting in Juneau.

Since last summer, the FAA in Juneau also has assigned a separate air traffic controller to handle helicopter traffic, which takes off from private pads at the airport. That allows the other controller to pay more attention to the runway, Turner said.

The FAA began tracking incursions and incidents more formally two years ago, Schommer said.

Last year, there were 321 incursions and 1,100 incidents nationwide reported at airports with control towers, none ending in death, Shaffer said. Alaska had about seven incursions and 30 incidents, Schommer said.

Runway incursions are up nearly 30 percent so far this year. But the figures are incomplete because they're only from the 532 airports with control towers. No one knows the number of incidents at the roughly 7,200 airports without towers. The agency will expand the runway incursion program to airports without towers.

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