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Old January 22nd, 2006, 09:21 AM   #1
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Boston Logan Nation's Leader in Runway Mishaps

Logan, a maze of runways, leads nation in airfield mishaps in '05
21 January 2006

BOSTON (AP) - Logan International Airport, the nation's leader in runway mishaps in 2005, juts into Boston Harbor like a swollen thumb.

On an 2,400-acre peninsula of mostly landfill, five runways stretching 38,500 feet are contorted into a misshapen triangle. Adding to the asphalt maze is 14 miles of taxiways, and the ongoing construction of a sixth, 5,000-foot landing strip.

"You've got a highway with lots of spaghetti interchanges and without good signs," said Capt. Mitchell Serber, who flies into Logan several times a year and heads an Air Line Pilots Association committee on airfield safety. "You are going to get people going the wrong way."

Last year, Logan saw a dramatic spike in runway incursions and surface incidents, aviation lingo for mishaps that can range from a near miss to a harmless wrong turn. The number topped out at 17 in less than a year when a plane rolled onto a runway without permission last November. By contrast, there were only three in all of 2004, and one in 2003.

"We have no definitive answers," said Harry West, manager of the Federal Aviation Administration's New England Runway Safety Program. "There is no one or two particular items that we can point at and say, 'This is the reason.'"

Mishaps doubled after ground was broken on a new runway in April 2005, but confusion caused by the construction can be blamed for only two incursions, West said. The other problems can be traced to a confluence of factors, including poor signs, outdated ground radar, human error and geographic issues that are unique to the 83-year-old airport.

Planes must always land and take off with or against the wind. To compensate for weather changes, airports offer a variety of runways that face different directions.

Newer airfields generally have more space, which means landing strips can be spread out.

Logan's size, however, constricts the runways into that distorted triangle with a maze of intersections. Factor in a major construction project that redirects the routes planes take to and from terminals, and things can get confusing even for seasoned pilots.

On an airfield, the slightest wrong turn can mean a runway incursion, or worse.

When a plane is on approach -- or poised to take flight -- officials designate a 500-foot wide protective buffer around an active runway.

Any violation of that buffer is counted as an incursion. But it could mean something as innocuous as another plane taxiing at the far end of an airstrip or a wayward luggage truck crossed the runway a mile from an approaching plane.

Incursions are given different classifications -- from category A to D, with A being the most serious -- to show the seriousness.

At Logan, only one of the airport's 17 recent mishaps was a designated a category A. That near miss was on June 9 when a US Airways Jet came within 167 feet of an Aer Lingus plane as it was taking off. The incident, which involved a combined 381 passengers, is still under investigation.

A more-typical category D incursion happened on Jan. 1, 2005, when one plane began to roll forward for take off before a landing aircraft had taxied off the runway. The two planes never got closer than 4,000 feet from each other, documents show.

"When you put it in context, they happen very infrequently," said FAA spokesman Jim Peters. "But we don't want to see any."

There hasn't been a fatal collision on a United States runway since 1991 when 34 people died at Los Angeles International Airport after two planes collided.

Massport, the agency that operates the airport, did not return repeated phone calls by The Associated Press for this story. However, in November, Logan announced new safety measures aimed at reducing the risk of runway collisions.

Those steps included accelerated approval and construction of a taxiway designed to keep planes from crossing the runways while heading to or from gates, as well as a long-term plan to bring a three-dimensional simulator for the airport, an ongoing analysis of the airport's taxiways to reduce their complexity, and updated pilot maps of "hot spots" where previous incursions have occurred.

Massport also offered to pay nearly $9 million to speed the installation of a new ground radar system that works better in poor weather and at night and tracks everything on the airfield -- from jumbo jets to fuel tanker trucks.

New signs indicating where planes should hold have been added to the airfield, and officials have been supervising takeoffs and landings more closely.

In addition, a system of markings on the asphalt that tested well at T.F. Green International Airport in Warwick, R.I., is due to be completed at Logan by April 2006, Peters said. The necessary painting can't be done in cold winter weather, he said.

Other enhancements include a runway status lighting system that operates like high-tech traffic signals to warn pilots when it is safe to proceed.

Serber, from the Air Line Pilot Association, envisions monitors in cockpits that would link to the new ground radar and give pilots a real-time view of the airfield. But for now, he just wants that fresh coat of paint to illuminate the markings on Logan's old asphalt.

"It would make a difference," he said.
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