WASHINGTON — More and more airplanes, vehicles and people are erroneously entering runways, increasing the chance of a "catastrophic accident," a federal safety official told lawmakers Wednesday.
In almost 60% of 429 runway incursions last year, a pilot made a mistake. Although private planes rather than commercial carriers made most of the errors, the threat of a major accident is real, the acting head of the National Transportation Safety Board told lawmakers Wednesday.
Carol Carmody said there have been few collisions or fatalities. Nonetheless, she told the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee, "The possibility for a catastrophic accident only increases with time if the rate of errors is not reduced."
The head of the Federal Aviation Administration, Jane Garvey, said her agency was working to reduce the number of runway incursions. Steps include better communication between pilots and air traffic controllers, changes in airport operations, and training courses on runway safety.
She said those efforts were "one of the most important FAA safety initiatives."
In 1999, there were 322 runway incursions, FAA figures show. During January and February, there was 152 incidents, compared with 150 during the same two months in 2000.
The Transportation Department inspector general has noted that the increase comes at a time when the number of flights is increasing. The Air Transport Association, the trade association for the major airlines, said there were 8.6 million departures in 1999, up from 8.3 million in 1998.
Carmody said the FAA has failed to develop the technology needed to reduce the problem and has not adopted some NTSB recommendations.
For example, the FAA has yet to require that controllers use standard international phrases better understood by pilots who are not native English speakers, and the FAA continues to allow planes to wait on active runways even when visibility is limited, Carmody said.
Garvey said the FAA was looking at the problem and hoped to have a program in place this summer.
In another matter, Garvey reported that the FAA and its parent agency, the Transportation Department, finally have agreed on a standard for reporting delayed flights. From now on, a flight will be considered late if it reaches the airport gate at least 15 minutes later than its scheduled arrival time.
The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., had pressed for the uniform standards at a hearing earlier this month on airline delays.
"Now we can begin to rank the airlines," he said. "The consumer is entitled to know which airline has the best record with delays."