Federal and local officials will unveil a new warning system today that is designed to stop runway incursions that for years have endangered planes taxiing to and from terminals at Los Angeles International Airport.
The $7-million system relies on radar that is connected to status lights along a runway and eight taxiways deemed to have the highest risk for aircraft accidents. If the radar detects a potential conflict between two planes or an aircraft and a motor vehicle, the lights automatically turn red, alerting pilots to the risk.
Combined with recent improvements to the airport's southern runways, Federal Aviation Administration officials say the warning lights should further reduce the chance of collisions as aircraft move around busy LAX. A similar system at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport has reduced the number of close calls from 10 to three during 2 1/2 years of operation.
"We are hopeful that this could be a major solution" to runway incursions, said Gina Marie Lindsey, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports. "There have been good indications in Dallas and San Diego."
From 1999 to 2007, LAX had the most runway safety violations in the nation, including one harrowing incident in which two jets carrying 296 people came within 37 feet of each other.
After a taxiway was added between the two southern runways, the number of incursions at LAX declined from 21 in 2007 to five so far this year.
The new lights, which are embedded in the pavement, work two ways. For planes about to land or take off, red lights in the runway will illuminate if another aircraft is crossing downfield. For planes waiting to cross a runway, red lights will come on at intersecting taxiways when another airplane is about to depart or land.
Once the lights go off, pilots and motorists traveling on airport roads must still obtain clearance from air traffic controllers before crossing or entering the runway.
"This is a major step forward and another piece of a larger approach to improve runway safety," said Jaime Figueroa, a safety manager in the FAA's runway incursion program. "No single solution is 100% perfect."
Lindsey said the Board of Airport Commissioners decided to pay for the warning system with airport revenue rather than wait for federal money -- a move that allowed the signals to be installed almost three years earlier than they would have been.
Jon Russell, western regional safety chairman for the Air Line Pilots Assn., said the new warning lights are a significant safety measure, but the devices need to be installed on all taxiways that intersect runways. He said lights were not put in some of the areas where close calls have occurred.
"This is a great starting point," Russell said, "but the system is not complete."
Given their budget constraints, FAA and LAX officials said they selected sites they thought had the greatest potential for collisions. If necessary, they said, lights can be added to other taxiways and runways in the future.
Although FAA officials believe the system will contribute to runway safety, they contend that more needs to be done at LAX, such as widening the distance between the two parallel runways on the north side of the airfield.
The proposal is undergoing further study, and residents in nearby Westchester oppose the idea because of the potential disruption to their neighborhoods.
"Runway status lights provide a last line of defense against runway incursions," said Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman in Los Angeles. "The first, and best, line of defense is proper airfield geometry -- the kind of geometry we now see on the south airfield. We strongly believe that Los Angeles World Airports should reconfigure the north airfield similarly."