WASHINGTON – Six-year-old Joshua Woods was singing Christmas songs on Dec. 8, 2005, when a runaway plane at Chicago’s Midway Airport crashed through a fence and collided with his family’s car, killing the boy. The tragedy underscores what the government says is an urgent safety problem.
Eleven major airports are struggling to meet federal requirements that runways be surrounded by safety areas that give runaway planes extra room to stop, according to a new report from the Transportation Department’s inspector general. The airports account for nearly one quarter of the nation’s air passenger travel.
All the airports have been working for years to come up with solutions, but often there’s no place to send runaway planes because the airports are hemmed in by highways, water, buildings or other obstructions.
The airports are located in Baltimore, Boston, Charlotte, N.C., Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco and Washington. Midway made safety improvements two years after Woods’ death.
Between 1997 and 2007, 75 aircraft overran or veered off runways, resulting in nearly 200 injuries and 12 deaths, the report said. In just three of the accidents cited in the report, 80 injuries and Woods’ death could have been prevented if safety improvements to runways made after the accidents had been in place beforehand, report said.
Safety areas typically are 1,000 feet long and 500 feet wide at each end of a runway, plus 250 feet along both sides of the runway.
The Federal Aviation Administration has allowed some airports that don’t have enough room for full-size safety areas to install crunchable concrete beds called “engineered material arresting systems” at the ends of runways. The beds are designed to stop or slow planes, not unlike the way gravel-covered ramps on highways stop runaway trucks.
The beds are typically about 600 feet long instead of 1,000 feet, saving space. Beds at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport have already halted three runaway planes. But even that requires more room than is feasible at some airports.
The report said some of the 11 airports may not be able to meet a congressional deadline of 2015 to put runway safety areas in place. Putting safety areas in place can require filling in wetlands, requiring environmental reviews that can take as long as 12 years to complete. Community opposition to airport expansion because of noise concerns has also been a factor.
“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 from flights that undershoot, overrun or veer off a runway lacking a standard (runway safety area),” the report said. “Improvements need to be made at the 11 large airports sooner rather than later.”
The FAA has already spent $2 billion helping hundreds of airports put runway safety areas in place, said Laura Brown, a spokeswoman for the agency. In addition to the roughly $300 million budgeted annually for the program, the economic stimulus plan pushed by President Barack Obama contains millions of extra dollars, she said.
“We’re working with all these airports to see if we can do all these things as quickly as possible,” Brown said.
Chris Oswald, vice president for safety and technical operations at the Airports Council International-North America, which represents airports in the United States and Canada, said runway safety areas are one of the most difficult problems facing urban airports.
“You are talking about very significant geographic impediments to expanding runway safety areas,” Oswald said.
Reagan National Airport outside Washington, for example, is sandwiched between the Potomac River and the George Washington Parkway. The airport has been reluctant to install a crunchable concrete bed because periodic flooding could damage the system, the report said.
ON THE WEB
Transportation Department’s inspector general: www.oig.dot.gov/
Federal Aviation Administration: www.faa.gov/
Eleven major airports face significant hurdles to meeting federal standards for safety areas around runways, according to a report by the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General.
• Baltimore Washington International-Thurgood Marshall Airport. Safety areas around all four of the airport’s runways need to be improved. The airport is working on the issue in connection with development of a long-range master plan.
• Boston Logan International Airport. The safety area around one runway is inadequate. Constrained by Boston Harbor and urban development, the airport has installed a smaller than standard crunchable concrete pad designed to slow or halt runaway planes as an interim measure. Airport officials are studying extending the runway by filling in part of the harbor and then adding a full-size pad.
• Charlotte-Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, N.C. Two runway safety areas are inadequate. The airport is installing a crunchable pad, but it is waiting for the project’s completion before deciding what to do about the other runway, which is constrained by a parkway and railroad tracks.
• Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood Airport in Florida. Three runway safety areas are inadequate, but they are constrained by canals, an interstate highway and railroad tracks. One runway has been improved with a partial and a full crunchable pad, but there are still some safety concerns. There are plans to extend a second runway; the third runway may be decommissioned.
• John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Three runway safety areas are inadequate. The airport is constrained by Jamaica Bay, roads and wetlands. One runway safety area project is under way. Improvements to the other two runway safety areas have to be done in turns so as not to increase congestion at the airport. Together, the projects may take more than seven years to complete.
• LaGuardia Airport in New York. Two runway safety areas are inadequate. Partial crunchable pads have been installed, but final improvements, including extending runway decks over Flushing Bay, present engineering challenges and could take more than eight years to complete.
• Los Angeles International Airport. Two runway safety areas are inadequate, but are constrained by roads, urban development and environmentally sensitive areas. Improvements have been delayed by legal battles involving the airport’s master plan.
• Philadelphia International Airport. Two runway safety areas are inadequate. The airport is constrained by two rivers, an interstate highway, a dredge disposal site and an industrial area. A draft environmental review is expected this year on one improvement project, but the airport still needs to reach an agreement on how to mitigate damage to wetlands to move forward on the second runway safety area.
• Phoenix Sky Harbor International. One runway safety area is inadequate. The airport is bordered by a river and urban development. The city is working on a plan to install a complete runway safety area.
• Reagan National Airport near Washington, D.C. All three of the airport’s runway safety areas are inadequate. The airport is constrained by a parkway and the Potomac River. The airport plans to improve one runway safety area by extending the runway. It has not yet decided how to improve the other two safety areas.
• San Francisco International Airport. All four of the airport’s runway safety areas are inadequate. The airport is constrained by San Francisco Bay and a highway. The airport is still studying the problem, but tentative plans call for reducing landing distances on two runways. It may be impracticable to bring up the two other runways to federal standards.