National Transportation Safety Board: Runway collisions the biggest danger out there

Forget all this talk about airplane safety inspections. What we should really be worried about, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board tells the New York Times today, are runway collisions.

“Where we are most vulnerable at this moment is on the ground,” Mark Rosenker tells the Times. “To me this is the most dangerous aspect of flying.”

The article details efforts to drastically cut down, if not eliminate, runway collisions, known rather vaguely in airline-speak as “incursions.” Basically a runway incursion is when something that shouldn’t be on a runway is, like a vehicle or an unauthorized plane. Earlier this month, for example, a tug towing an American Airlines MD-80 at Dallas-Fort Worth failed to hold in front of a runway on which another AA plane had landed. Seeing the tug-and-plane fast approaching the runway from the left, the pilot directed his plane to the right edge of the runway, avoiding a collision by some 25 feet, according to reports.

There were 15 incursions nationwide during the past six months, compared to eight for the same period last year, the Times reports.

At issue is the utter lack of technology on the ground — like surface GPS, for instance, or other electronic warning systems — that can give planes an idea of what is around them when they are on land. The FAA has stepped up efforts to improve signage and runway lighting, but it hasn’t been enough. One pilot dryly points out that if you have a navigation system in your car, you know more about where your car is on the ground than a plane does on a runway.

The technology is out there, but it’s expensive. The FAA is weighing one system that allows planes to broadcast their position automatically via GPS to both the ground and other planes.

The NTSB chides the FAA for pretty much ignoring the problem of runway incursions. Still, there is evidence that the FAA knows this is serious: The Times reports that during the big AA fiasco a few weeks ago with its MD-80 fleet, a senior FAA official was testifying before the Senate. The problem he addressed the most was not faulty wiring and plane safety inspections, but runway safety.