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LAX may not meet deadline for federal safety standards, report says

March 11, 2009|Dan Weikel

Los Angeles International Airport and 10 other major flight centers in the United States might not be able to meet a 2015 deadline for federal runway safety standards sought by Congress to reduce the risk of aircraft accidents, according to a new government study.

The report released this month by the inspector general's office for the U.S. Department of Transportation takes issue with the two northern runways at LAX, which have safety zones -- buffer areas of open land -- that are smaller than what federal regulations have required for airports since 1988.

Other airports must create safety areas that comply with the federal standards where feasible or develop alternatives such as collapsible pavement around runways. After several accidents related to inadequate safety areas, Congress in 2005 set a deadline of 2015 for compliance.

Nancy Castles, a spokeswoman for Los Angeles World Airports, said the agency has been working with the Federal Aviation Administration to address concerns about runway safety areas at LAX, including a current study to evaluate options and develop recommendations.

Safety areas must support the weight of commercial aircraft and measure 1,000 feet long by 500 feet wide at each end of a runway. In addition, a 250-foot buffer, measured from the runway's centerline, is required for each side. The rectangular zones give landing and departing aircraft a safety margin to reduce the risk of an accident from undershooting, overrunning or veering off a runway.

The report stated that during the last 10 years, 75 aircraft in the U.S. overran or veered off runways, killing 12 people and injuring about 200. Some of the accidents were caused or worsened by inadequate safety buffers.

Though there have been two serious crashes on LAX's north side since 1978, they were not blamed on inadequate safety zones. But in one of the incidents, the left landing gear of a Continental Airlines jet broke through weak tarmac and failed after the aircraft ran off the end of a runway while aborting a takeoff. The collapsing gear started a fire onboard.

Federal officials said LAX and the other airports probably will not make the required improvements by 2015. They noted that improving safety areas can take as long as 12 years, depending on the complexity of the project, community opposition and environmental reviews.

"Until these challenges and problems are addressed, aircraft will remain vulnerable to damage and, what is more important, their passengers remain at risk of potential injury," the report states. "Improvements need to be made at the 11 large airports sooner rather than later."

The other major airports are in Baltimore; Boston; Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; New York City, Philadelphia; Phoenix; San Francisco; and Washington, D.C. Including LAX, the airports handle about a quarter of the nation's airline passengers.

Since 1999, the FAA has identified 1,024 commercial airports that do not meet safety zone requirements, including 454 that have been given a high priority for improvement because they pose the greatest danger to passengers.

Among them is Chicago Midway, where an airliner skidded off the runway in late 2005 while landing in icy conditions. It came to a stop in a public street, where one person was killed and four others were injured in a car. Eighteen airplane passengers were hurt.

The report also mentions Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, where delays in meeting safety zone standards had serious repercussions in March 2000, when a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 overran the runway on landing, crashed through a blast fence and ended up in a street. Forty-four passengers and crew members were hurt.

After the incident, the Burbank airport enhanced its safety zones, and the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates aviation accidents, recommended that the federal government require all commercial airports to comply with the FAA standards where feasible.

On LAX's north side, three of four safety zones at the runway ends are short of the federal requirements -- one by 34 feet, one by 29 feet and one by 878 feet.

The report states that improvements at LAX have been delayed by legal battles over the airport's master plan, which requires airport officials to design north runway improvements and submit the plans for local review. Community activists say they will likely oppose any plan that includes moving the northernmost runway 300 feet to the north, where it would be even closer to homes and businesses.

The airport is doing environmental impact studies for a variety of proposed improvements, but they will not be complete until 2011. Also underway is a north-airfield safety study, which is due in about a year.

Jon Russell, an airline pilot and safety coordinator for the Air Line Pilots Assn., said LAX is close to meeting the FAA standards and has long runways, but emphasizes that safety areas are still important, especially for longer takeoffs. Safety zones are of critical importance, he said, for pilots landing on shorter runways in bad weather.

"Los Angeles World Airports should pursue a project to reconfigure the north airfield without further delay," said Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman. "It would bring overall runway safety up to federal standards as much as possible."

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dan.weikel@latimes.com

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