- The Washington Times - Friday, June 22, 2001

The risk of airplanes colliding on runways has grown enough that the Federal Aviation Administration plans to install radar devices at all three Washington area airports to alert pilots and air-traffic controllers of potential collisions.

The FAA announced the schedule for installing the devices just before it released its first report this week on "runway incursions," or mistakes that could make airplanes collide with other airplanes, equipment, debris or people on the ground.

The report comes at a time when the FAA is warning that mushrooming growth in airline travel is increasing the risk of collisions, either on the ground or in the air.

Compared with national averages, all three major airports in the Washington area are relatively safe.

The report indicates that passengers at Washington Dulles International Airport are the safest in the area from the risk of being injured or killed in runway collisions. Baltimore-Washington International Airport passengers had the greatest risk of the three local airports, with Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport only slightly less hazardous.

The radar to be deployed senses when an airplane comes too close to other objects and emits audio and visual signals to the control tower and airplane crew. The system is called AMASS, for Airport Movement Area Safety System.

"Basically, it's an alarm," said FAA spokesman Jim Peters. "It's a computer enhancement to an existing piece of radar."

The systems are scheduled for installation at BWI airport in June 2002 and Dulles in October 2002. No date has been set for installation at Reagan Airport, although it is among the 32 airports selected, Mr. Peters said.

The AMASS systems began operating for the first time this month at airports in San Francisco and Detroit.

Among major airports, Los Angeles had the most incursions, with 33, from 1997 through 2000. Fourteen were serious or very serious. St. Louis was second with 30 incursions, three serious or very serious.

Nationwide, the number of serious or very serious incursions increased from 60 in 1997 to 68 in 2000. At that rate, more than once a week on average a runway collision is avoided only when pilots move their planes out of the way at the last moment.

Part of the reason the number of incursions has increased steadily is because pilots and air traffic controllers appear to be reporting more of them, the FAA said. The 1,369 incursions mentioned in the FAA report were spread among 266 million takeoffs and landings at U.S. airports.

In the three-year periods reported by BWI and Dulles, each airport had four runway incursions. However, all the incursions at Dulles were listed as very minor. All of the incursions at BWI were listed as higher risks. One in 1999 was ranked very serious.

Reagan Airport reported four incursions two serious, one minor and one very minor for the four-year period of 1997 through 2000.

A minor incursion could mean that pilots stopped their planes slightly beyond the stop lines at runway entrances while waiting to take off. The risk to passengers in such situations is virtually none.

A serious incursion could mean two planes came within inches of colliding on a runway at speeds that could have killed everyone on board.

"At BWI we have not had an accident caused by incursion," said Melanie Miller, BWI spokeswoman.

The 1999 very serious incursion occurred when a dump truck driver ventured too close to an active runway.

"I know we are among the top 35 busiest airports," Miss Miller said.

Tara Hamilton, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority spokeswoman, said the layout of runways gives some airports safety advantages.

"Part of the issue with runway incursions is intersecting runways," Miss Hamilton said. "At Dulles, we don't have any intersecting runways. At National, our runways do intersect."

Both airports have three runways. BWI has four runways, three of which intersect.

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