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Runway safety system gets OK

WASHINGTON - The government gave the green light yesterday to a new system designed to prevent certain collisions on airport runways.

The technology, called the Airport Movement Area Safety System, uses existing airport radar to warn controllers of potential collisions involving aircraft attempting to land on runways that are occupied by other planes or by vehicles.

The $193 million system, which was supposed to be installed beginning in 1994, has been tested at Detroit Metropolitan-Wayne County and San Francisco International airports and is to be added to 31 other major airports between July, 2001, and November, 2002. The system is to be in service at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport by October.

“This new tool provides passengers an extra margin of safety on the runway,” Federal Aviation Administrator Jane Garvey said.

But the National Transportation Safety Board has said the system doesn't go far enough, since it doesn't warn pilots that a runway is occupied - it merely tells air-traffic controllers that a collision is likely.

“The board does not believe that [the system], as currently designed, meets the safety goals of the original system promised by the FAA,” acting transportation board chairwoman Carol Carmody told the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee in March.

The number of airplanes, vehicles, and people erroneously entering runways is on the increase. The number of runway incursions grew from 230 in 1994 to 431 in 2000. There were 130 during the first four months of 2001, compared with 118 during the same period in 2000.

Stopping runway incursions has been one of the transportation board's top safety priorities since 1990. Indeed, the weekend before the safety agency voted to keep the issue as a top priority, two planes came close to colliding at Dallas-Fort Worth airport. An American Airlines jet racing to take off for Chicago narrowly cleared a small cargo plane that accidentally turned onto the same runway.

FAA spokesman Fraser Jones said the system is designed to prevent serious accidents.

“We're giving controllers another tool to save people's lives,” Mr. Jones said. “We want to focus on the greatest loss of life and property and we don't want a system that's intrusive.”

But Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman, conceded that the technology would not have addressed the near-collision in Dallas, since it would not predict a crash involving a plane taking off.

Introducing the system, she said, is not the end of the aviation administration's efforts to reduce runway incursions. In Boston, the FAA is testing a system of automated lights that alerts pilots of planes awaiting takeoff that conflicting traffic has entered, or may soon enter, the runway ahead. The same system displays distinctive warning lights at intersecting runways and taxiways to alert pilots that a runway is about to become “hot.” Complicating matters, Ms. Brown said, is that runway incursions occur at different airports for differing reasons, so solutions have to be tailored to each location.

Ms. Brown said she did not have any data from the Detroit test.

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