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Incidents on Runways at LAX Decline

Safety: The number of serious near collisions between aircraft drops from five in 2000 to just one last year, drawing praise from an FAA official.

January 24, 2002|JENNIFER OLDHAM and RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Dangerous incidents on runways at Los Angeles International Airport leveled off last year and the number of serious near collisions between aircraft fell to just one, a trend that officials called a significant achievement.

LAX recorded eight incidents last year in which airplanes violated safety zones around runways being used by other aircraft--the same number of "incursions" recorded in 2000, according to statistics released Wednesday by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Only one of last year's incidents was classified by federal officials as a serious matter in which there was significant risk of a crash, compared with five such incidents at the world's third-busiest airport in 2000.

There were 12 runway incursions in 1998, 10 in 1999.

Breaches of runway safety guidelines are considered one of the most critical issues facing commercial aviation.

LAX had the unfortunate distinction from 1997 to 2000 of having 13 serious near crashes, more than any of the nation's busiest airports.

But LAX was eclipsed in 2001 in the category of all runway incidents by several other major metropolitan airports, including Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, which both charted 10 near collisions last year.

Even so, LAX officials said the numbers are a reminder that it's important to keep an eye on runway safety, even as the nation has become preoccupied with terrorist attacks.

"We're not happy that there were eight this year, at any level," said Michael DiGirolamo, deputy director of operations for the city agency that operates LAX.

"It's a continuing effort by the FAA, the airlines, the pilots' association and the airport to get the number down to zero."

The drop in near collisions at LAX was mirrored in national data, which showed that these incidents fell in 2001 for the first time since the FAA focused on the issue as a major safety problem in the mid-1990s.

There were 381 runway incursions last year, down 11% from 431 in 2000, according to FAA figures. Serious runway incursions at airports around the nation also declined. In 2001, there were 50 such near collisions, down 26% from 68 in 2000. While that is a notable improvement, it still represents an average of nearly one serious incident per week.

Awareness Credited for Improvement

Officials said the decrease in near collisions at the nation's airports had already started before the terrorist attacks caused a significant drop in air traffic.

Aviation officials attributed the nationwide improvement in runway safety to greater awareness among pilots, controllers and airport officials. Other improvements include better signs, lighting and communication between controllers and pilots.

Bill Davis, director of the FAA's runway safety program, praised LAX for its efforts to solve the seemingly intractable problem of near misses on its 40-year-old airfield.

"It is hard to imagine an airport that is more serious about this problem than LAX," Davis said Wednesday morning. "They've got a full-up focus on this problem."

The city agency that operates LAX has spent $5 million since 1999 on a safety program that includes installing more lighting and signs on taxiways and runways, enlarging markings at the end of taxiways, and distributing posters showing problem spots to pilots.

The airport is also moving forward with a plan to redesign part of the south side of the facility to limit the number of planes crossing active runways.

Airport users say the configuration of LAX--which forces pilots to drive airplanes from the outer runways across interior runways--causes most near misses at the world's third-busiest airport.

Airplanes typically land on the runways nearest local communities and take off on those next to the terminals to shield neighborhoods from noise.

About 80% of the incidents reported at LAX since 1997 have been on the south side of the airfield. All of last year's runway incursions occurred there.

The plan to rework the south side of the airport would include extending a taxiway so that planes can reach terminals without crossing active runways.

On Tuesday, the city's Airport Commission voted to request bids from contractors to design and conduct environmental studies for this taxiway extension, DiGirolamo said.

A study released by the airport last summer found that using this extension to change the way controllers direct traffic on the aging airfield could help reduce the chance of airliners colliding at LAX.

Pilots and controllers cautioned that even with improvements, near collisions are likely to increase again when air traffic returns to pre-Sept. 11 levels.

"Assuming we're going to add flights, it will become a problem again," said Mike Foote, an air traffic controller at the LAX tower and local president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn. "It's not going to go away."

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