May 19, 2001 Daily Herald
Issues go beyond runway shortage
Daily Herald Reports
Posted on May 19, 2001

The air-travel issue that is getting the most attention of late is the urgent plea, by area business executives, to build more runways at O'Hare Airport to relieve air-traffic congestion.

But there other things happening - on the runways already in place and in the terminals that surround them - that also bear careful attention.

This week, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board warned that the danger of a collision between airplanes on runways is growing. That is because so-called runway incursion incidents are increasing. An incursion occurs when planes or vehicles appear on runways when they are not supposed to be there.

Just such an incursion occurred in 1977 on the Canary Islands, leading to the deadliest aviation accident in history. Five-hundred eighty-three people were killed when two jumbo jets crashed into each other on a runway.

Nothing of such a disastrous proportion has occurred since, but there are far too many near misses. Indeed, in 1999 a Korean Airlines jet that took off from O'Hare came within 50 feet of hitting a China Airlines jet that had wandered onto an active runway, according to the NTSB.

The FAA's education program designed to avoid the chance of a runway collision clearly needs to be improved. The number of incursions in 1998 and 1999 was remarkably higher than it was in the early 1990s.

The FAA also needs to be moving with urgency toward adopting a recommendation from NTSB that calls for improvements to the system for alerting air-traffic controllers of pending runway incursions - before there is a catastrophe.

The FAA also needs to be doing more to deal with a public relations catastrophe in its terminals - the growing complaints from air travelers about delayed flights and poor service.

Yet, airline regulators are not in a position to do much about this. This week, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported that it does not have nearly the staff it needs to address air-traveler complaints.

Cutbacks in the DOT consumer office has seen staffing fall from 40 in 1985 to 17 today. This could be one of the reasons why passenger dissatisfaction continues to rise. Those who can help unhappy passengers by enforcing airline consumer laws are stretched too thin.

Adequate staffing of this office is critical in light of the ever-growing frustration with the quality of airline service.

The list of challenges associated with providing safe, timely and consumer-friendly airline travel grows larger every day. It is time for lawmakers, regulators and the airline industry to establish a flight plan that will guide air travel, so vital to our economy and quality of life, out of the turbulence.

[Chicago ATC News]