RUNWAY congestion is growing

Tuesday, May 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The number of airplanes, vehicles and people on runways continues to grow, and the head of the National Transportation Safety Board says a catastrophic accident could result.

Carol Carmody, acting chairwoman of the NTSB, said she fears that two large airliners could collide on a runway unless the problem of incursions is reduced. Generally, incursions are defined as passengers, planes or vehicles that appear on runways but aren't supposed to be there.

Solving runway incursion has been one of the NTSB's most-wanted safety improvements. The board was meeting Tuesday to approve the newest of suggested improvements and the staff recommended that runway incursions remain on the list.

The problem is getting worse. In 2000, there were 431 runway incursions, compared with 321 in 1999, Federal Aviation Administration records show. Incidents this year are running ahead of last year's pace, with 130 incursions during the first four months of 2001, compared with 118 during the same period in 2000.

On Saturday, an American Airlines plane missed a cargo plane by less than 100 feet at the Dallas Fort-Worth Airport. The cargo plane apparently turned on to the runway while the American plane was taking off. The FAA is investigating the incident.

``Every day, we keep hearing about a new runway incursion,'' Carmody said in an interview Monday. ``As long as there are these kinds of numbers, it makes the possibility of a catastrophe more likely.''

Even FAA efforts to reduce incursions have not worked so far, Carmody said.

``While the FAA I know is aggressive in their education program, the results have not been very positive,'' Carmody said. ``We haven't seen the numbers go down yet.''

Federal Aviation Administrator Jane Garvey has called reducing runway incidents ``one of the most important FAA safety initiatives.'' The agency has made changes in airport operations, offered training courses on runway safety, and worked on improving communications between pilots and air traffic controllers.

Carmody, sworn in last year to a five-year term on the board, became acting chairwoman in January and will direct the agency until President Bush nominates a new chairman.

She said another top safety concern is airplane fuel tanks. Carmody said new FAA rules designed to prevent tank explosions appeared to fall short of what was needed.

She noted the FAA's rules were silent on ordering airlines to reduce the amount of air in the fuel tanks and therefore, the flammability of the fuel-air mixture.

``The preliminary view is it may not go far enough,'' Carmody said. ``It still doesn't address the flammable mixture in fuel tanks. We think it needs a two-pronged approach.''

A joint airline industry-FAA task force is looking at whether to recommend that airlines pump nitrogen gas into the tanks. FAA spokesman Alison Duquette said the agency is waiting for the task force's report before moving forward.

The new FAA rules require manufacturers to inspect tank designs and then develop regular tank inspection and maintenance programs. Airlines also must develop such programs for their fleets.

In addition, new airplanes must be designed to reduce the chances that fuel vapors in the tanks will ignite, causing an explosion.

Investigators blamed a fuel tank fire for the crash of TWA Flight 800, a Boeing 747 that went down on July 17, 1996, shortly after taking off from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York en route to Paris. All 230 people aboard were killed.

The NTSB said a flammable fuel-air mixture in the tank probably was ignited by an electrical short circuit, but the plane's design contributed to the blast by putting heat sources under the tank.

In March,a Thai Airways Boeing 737 exploded on the tarmac in Bangkok, Thailand, killing one crew member and injuring seven others. The NTSB said the center fuel tank of the Thai plane, located near air conditioning packs that had been running nonstop, exploded first. The right tank exploded 18 minutes later.