Danger On The Runway

The Associated Press has a story about runway safety that ought to scare everyone who flies in the United States. It cites a Government Accountability Office report warning that inadequate technology and overworked air traffic controllers are among the factors that may contribute to a serious collision on the ground.

The AP pointed out three harrowing cases of runway incursions, where loaded commercial jets nearly hit each other on runways in Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale and LaGuardia this year.

A few choice excerpts from the GAO report:

According to NTSB, it has investigated several near collisions in recent years that could have been catastrophic if they had not been averted through pilot skill and luck.

… the fact that air traffic controllers at some of the nation’s busiest airports are regularly working 6-day weeks due to staffing shortages raises questions about the extent to which regularly working overtime may cause fatigue, which NTSB has cited as a contributing factor in air traffic control errors

… although FAA hired a permanent director at the Senior Executive Service (SES) level for the Office of Runway Safety in August 2007, the Office of Runway Safety did not have a permanent director for the previous 2 years, resulting in a lack of national program leadership, and its staff was reduced by about 45 percent over the last 4 years.

Recent serious runway incursions at airports with fully operational runway safety technology reveal persistent problems with their alerting functions.

I guess we’re not going to be able to say nobody warned us.


10 thoughts on “Danger On The Runway

  1. daisy

    So 0.0006% of all air traffic control operations results in an incident on the runway, and we’re supposed to be terrified now? Give me a break. Obviously, air traffic controllers need regular breaks, etc. No argument. But to try to intentionally instill fear on this is irresponsible.
    Just the level of journalism I’ve come to expect from the Courant.

  2. Jeanne Leblanc

    Hey Daisy,
    I didn’t tell you to be terrified, but I do think you ought to be worried. I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t be concerned about loaded jets coming within 37 feet of each other at high speed. This is not the first warning about this problem.
    And if you have no argument about air traffic controllers needing regular breaks, why are you arguing? These people are not being denied coffee breaks – they’re being forced to work six days a week.
    This is a blog, by the way, where I write commentary on the news. It’s not reporting. The “journalism” is from the Associated Press, on a report from the GAO.
    So your gratuitous insult about The Courant is rude and misdirected. Given that you can’t seem to dispute a single fact in the report, it’s also unsupported.

  3. Kate

    Daisy- let’s not forget about the report that NASA refuses to release because they’re afraid it’ll scare the passengers so much that they’ll never want to fly again. If you’d rather our newspapers sit back and NOT investigate on things that governmental sources refuse to release, then you should stick to fox news- maybe then you’ll be less angry.

  4. Dan

    What you need to be concerned with is a a two edged sword. They problems with diminishing controller experience and staffing numbers is getting worse and is picking up speed. Number two; the FAA is lying on almost every statement or news release they put out. I have never seen such blatant lying and deception from this agency as I have in the last two years. They are going to get caught at it but the accident that exposes their lack of ethics and their incredible mismanagement is going to be very severe and so very sad.

  5. ATC

    Well, I am an Air Traffic Controller and let me tell you, you should be afraid. Controllers working 10 hour days/6 days a week at places like LAX and Atlanta Tower is a disaster waiting to happen. Do you realize the fall out of two large Air Carriers colliding in mid air at say 21,000 Feet? The Bu$h Administration again, is to blame for poor pro-active planning and horrible/misguided leadership that continues to sink this Country further and further away from the rest of world.

  6. Jason

    Jeanne .. I wanted to say thank you for putting it out there. As an air traffic controller with 21 more years till retirement, and yes — I am counting since the FAA has forced up a working environment filled with harassment and abuse, you hit the nail on the head.
    Mathematically, the 2 aircraft near Chicago that almost hit were above 5-6 seconds away from impact had pilots not taken action. Ask any passenger on those flights how they feel after learning they were seconds from death.
    Or what about those on the Delta and United flights in Fort Lauderdale in which Delta overflew the United jet by about 40 feet.
    Or just yesterday at Newark there was a near collision. Baltimore-Washington had a near collision within the last week.
    A Syracuse air traffic controller was forced to work almost 14 hours on 1 shift. The law states that unless there is an emergency, a 10 hour operational day is the longest.
    A controller in California was forced to work 7 days in a row (law restricts it to 6 days a week). He lost minimum separation.
    We are all a PROUD and professional bunch. The FAA spins its facts and is UNABLE to back them up. They hired 1815 trainees, NOT controllers, last year. Of those, only 40 completed training to become fully qualified. More than 850 controllers retired. The FAA had to readjust its estimates 3 times and still underestimated.
    And lets not begin to count the massive resignations by the new hires due to $8.00/hr starting hourly among the agency’s inability to train due to the lack of fully certified controllers.
    On Jan 3, 2008 .. ten percent of the workforce may walk out and retire if the FAA does not change its failing ways. By 2011, 60% of the air traffic controller workforce will have less than 4 years experience if things do not change.
    This is a mess. And unless something happens very soon to stop the bleeding of controllers retiring the day they become eligible, it is not a question of if, what a matter of, WHEN. It is kinda of like Russian roulette and the trigger is cocked — do you feel lucky?

  7. Doug

    Jeanne, Nice post.
    Jason, your comments are right on. I too have been controller for 16 years in a busy enroute center. We can’t sit back and watch the FAA destroy this system anymore.
    We have stated facts to rebute the FAA claims which are false. We are all tired and it just keeps getting worse.
    I will agree with Jeanne’s last comment, don’t say we didn’t tell you this was coming.
    We are all professionals and do love our jobs, just can’t take the intimidation and fear, and the FAA just thinks we will sit back and watch and say nothing, then when something happens, it will be our fault, not theirs.
    Wake up people, this is a serious crisis, that is still being ignored….

  8. Heather Wolf

    In one week, on Dec 17 the FAA will implement Phase I of the Airspace Redesign. This project increases air traffic controller and pilot workload when all of our ill-equipped airports are operating over capacity without necessary safety equipment.
    We are very troubled that the FAA is not prioritizing safety in their process to maintain and update the Nation’s Airspace.
    We call for an immediate halt to implementation of the airspace redesign until the FAA addresses these critical issues and implements the suggestions outlined by the GAO.
    I want to personally thank the Air Traffic Controllers. You have my highest respect. Thank you.

  9. lou

    A friend I just recently saw for the first time in years is an air traffic controller and she’s counting down the days to her retirement in a couple of years. The stories she told me that could give you nightmares.
    You can work a shift until 2 a.m. and have to turn around and be back on the job at 10 a.m. the same morning. You also might have to work three different schedules in the same week (an over night, an early day shift, a late afternoon shift — how is your body supposed to adjust?!).
    The FAA is paying beginning air traffic controller LESS than when she started her job in the mid 80s — not even counting inflation.
    If I didn’t have to travel for my job, I’d refuse to step on a plane until drastic changes are made. and even now, I’m starting to look for a job where I don’t have to travel as much.

  10. Mark Lewis

    As much as the focus of the discussion is on controllers, there are aircraft, and therefor, pilots involved in the equation as well. I would suggest that putting an inexperienced pilot, one who has barely completed their commercial pilot certificate, with a grand total of less than 500 hours, into the right seat of a regional jet may impair the overall effectiveness of the flight crew, increasing the workload on the (presumably) more experienced captain, and potentially the flight controllers as well. This is the current market for job seekers, but that doesn’t mean that it is safe or proper.


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