By Jon Hilkevitch
Tribune Transportation Writer
June 27, 2000

WASHINGTON -- Extra safeguards to prevent potentially deadly collisions on airport runways will be implemented within 10 days, the Federal Aviation Administration said Monday. In addition, Chicago's Midway Airport and Mitchell Field in Milwaukee will receive new surveillance equipment that monitors the movement of planes and other vehicles on the airfield.

FAA Administrator Jane Garvey issued the announcement at the opening of a three-day summit on runway safety, just in time for the start of the summer travel season. The action follows 321 incidents last year in which an aircraft landing or taking off came perilously close to another plane or surface vehicle.

The new system to detect movement of all planes and vehicles on an airfield is intended to provide smaller and medium-size airports with surveillance similar to the coverage already in place at busier facilities, but at a lower cost.

Twenty-five airports will receive a version of the Airport Surface Detection Equipment, including Midway, Mitchell and the Indianapolis airport.

In addition to giving the airport tower personnel detailed information about aircraft locations and monitoring all other activity on the ground, the system alerts air traffic controllers to impending collisions, FAA officials said.

The new technology will be particularly welcomed at Midway, which has experienced three runway incursions this year and had five such incidents in 1999. The majority of the violations, which are still under investigation, appear to have been caused by truck drivers and other service vehicles, said Chris Blum, manager of the FAA's air traffic division in the Great Lakes region.

Larger, busier airports like O'Hare, which experienced five runway incursions last year, are scheduled to receive a more sophisticated ground-surveillance system tailored to their more complex runway configurations and traffic patterns. That technology, called the Airport Movement Area Safety System, or AMASS, is scheduled to be in operation by late 2002--more than 10 years behind schedule. It will be tested at San Francisco and Detroit later this year.

FAA officials said their original timetable for that system was too optimistic and they implored pilots, controllers, airport managers and other aviation experts attending this week's runway safety summit to focus on reducing human error instead of waiting for technology to provide the answers.

Two of the more serious cases in 1999 occurred at O'Hare International Airport, including one in which two Boeing 747s missed each other by less than 50 feet--evoking memories of the deadliest accident in aviation history, when two 747s collided on the ground in Tenerife in the Canary Islands in 1977, killing 582 people.

An FAA simulation of the runway incursion at O'Hare on April 1, 1999, determined that AMASS would not have prevented that incident, in which a Korean Air 747 was taking off while a China Air cargo plane that had gotten lost crossed the runway. The pilot of the Korean Air jet lifted off after seeing the errant plane, barely avoiding a collision.

Los Angeles International Airport, a leading world gateway to the U.S. that serves a large number of foreign carriers on a complex airport grid, has suffered the most runway-related incidents for the last two years: 10 in 1999 and 12 in 1998. Airport officials recently had off-limits areas of the airfield painted green, to simulate grass, to keep confused pilots from steering into potentially dangerous situations.

The 321 so-called runway incursions across the country a year ago represent a 71 percent increase over the number of incidents or near-collisions on the ground that were reported in 1993, and the danger may be increasing. In the first five months of this year, the number of close calls increased 27 percent from the same period a year earlier.

"The number of runway incursions remains alarmingly high," Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told a hearing this month at which he urged the FAA to depend more on common-sense solutions and less on high-tech fixes.

"We know that taxiing on the airport surface is the most hazardous phase of flight," Garvey said Monday, adding that runway safety must be improved dramatically to accommodate projected increases in airline traffic in the next 10 years.

"This significant growth at virtually the same airport capacity that we use today only makes our job more pressing," Garvey said.

The FAA has set a goal for 2000, despite the year's poor start, of a 15 percent reduction in the runway incursion levels from last year. The agency has budgeted $39 million this year for runway safety.

Reacting to recommendations issued June 13 by the safety board, the FAA said Monday that it will tighten procedures in which airplanes waiting to depart are allowed to sit on active runways. The current situation can be particularly dangerous at night or when poor weather reduces visibility, because pilots of arriving aircraft may not see the plane waiting to depart.

Garvey also said air traffic controllers will be instructed to talk more slowly when communicating with flight crews, especially those whose primary language is not English, and to use standard phraseology approved by the International Civil Aviation Organization, the international counterpart to the FAA.

Two other safety board recommendations that the FAA will immediately adopt involve revising procedures when intersecting runways are in use and developing coded taxi routes at airports to minimize the chance of pilots getting lost in the maze of taxiways, holding areas and runways.

The actions announced Monday by the FAA were viewed as significant improvements, particularly in light of the fact that a commercial jetliner typically travels 800,000 miles on the ground over its service history.