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Published: Wednesday, 11/29/2006

Risk on the runways

SEVEN years is too long to wait to eliminate dangerous near collisions on the nation's airport runways. But that's how long the Federal Aviation Administration figures it will take to outfit planes with a navigation system that will allow pilots to track other planes on the ground.

The agency also says it is testing lights embedded in runways that flash a warning to pilots when another plane gets too close.

The safety devices are promising, but aviation accident investigators say the runway congestion problem is a major crash waiting to happen. It needs a quicker solution.

"It's unacceptable," said National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Mark Rosenker. "We've been running on luck for far too long."

While near-collisions on runways are extremely rare among the millions of takeoffs and landings, the number has nevertheless climbed for the second year in a row.

There were 31 high-risk runway incidents in fiscal 2006, up from 29 in 2005 and 28 in 2004. The totals are still lower than 2000, when there were 67 near collisions, but safety enhancements could eliminate the danger altogether.

The FAA insists it is pursuing solutions but thorough testing is necessary before costly proposals are advanced. That's not good enough, especially when the most recent fatal airline crash in the U.S. resulted from a runway mistake. In August, pilots in a Comair jet tried to take off from the wrong runway in Lexington, Ky., and slammed into a row of trees, killing 49 of the 50 people aboard.

In July, the NTSB says two jets missed each other by 35 feet in Chicago - a tragedy averted by good fortune and the grace of God.

Aviation safety cannot run on luck, and the nation's runways simply cannot wait years for a solution that would save lives.



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