LEXINGTON, Ky. – A cockpit warning system used by only a few commercial airlines might have prevented the deadly Comair jet crash last weekend if the plane had been equipped with the $18,000 piece of technology, a former top federal safety official says.
"To have 49 people burned up in a crash that is totally preventable is one of the worst things I have ever seen, and I've seen almost everything in aviation," Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his home in Chattanooga, Tenn.
In Sunday's accident, a commuter jet at Lexington's airport struggled to get airborne and crashed after it made a wrong turn and took off from a runway that was too short. The sole survivor, the plane's first officer, was critically injured.
A Runway Awareness and Advisory System made by Phoenix-based Honeywell Aerospace uses a mechanical voice to identify the runway by number before takeoff and warns pilots if the runway is too short for their plane.
The system, which can pinpoint a plane's location using global-positioning systems, also alerts pilots if they are trying to take off from a taxiway instead of a runway.
The software program — an enhancement to Honeywell's widely used ground proximity warning system that alerts pilots to mountain peaks ahead — costs about $18,000 a plane. It was developed in response to Federal Aviation Administration concerns over runway accidents and close calls.
While other vendors may offer similar systems, Honeywell's is the only one certified by the FAA, company spokesman Bill Reavis said.
The FAA certified Honeywell's system in 2003 but did not require its use.
"We are always looking at new technology," FAA spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere said. "I know Honeywell has the system, but I don't know where it is" in the review process.
About 600 commercial and business-class aircraft worldwide have the device, and the company has orders for 700 more. The FAA says there are about 8,000 planes in the U.S. fleet — about half of them large commercial airliners.
Only Alaska Airlines, Air France, FedEx, Lufthansa and Malaysia Airlines have ordered the system for their planes, Reavis said. No commuter airlines have the warning device.
"This is a piece of equipment that could have saved 49 people from being burned to death," Hall said. "But because of the economic interest of the aviation industry," is it is used in only a few planes.
Hall was NTSB chairman from 1994 to 2001 and is now an aviation consultant. He said he has no business relationship with Honeywell.
NTSB spokesman Paul Schlamm said the agency has recommended on-board warning systems that would give "immediate warnings of probable collisions or incursions directly to the flight crews," but hasn't specified the technology. "This is something we haven't done yet," he said.
Comair spokeswoman Kate Marx said that 118 of the carrier's 168 airplanes have global-positioning-system navigational aids in their cockpits already — including doomed Comair Flight 5191 — that would let pilots know their location both in the air and on the ground. But they do not have the mechanical-voice warning system.
"It is also part of our standard operating procedure to review all pertinent flight information prior to takeoff," she said.
The rest of Comair's fleet will be outfitted with GPS by next 2007, and the airline will look at other safety measures as well, she said.
Dave Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, an industry trade group, refused to discuss the merits of the system while the Comair crash is still under investigation.
Jerry Skinner, a Cincinnati lawyer who has represented families of victims in several airline crashes and has used Hall as a consultant, said the airlines made a cost-benefit decision: "The technology would cost money, and most airlines are not ready to put in that stuff."
Comair 5191 was cleared by the control tower to take off from a 7,000-foot runway, but instead turned onto a 3,500-foot strip of cracked pavement used by small planes.
Hall said he could only speculate why a veteran flight crew familiar with the airport didn't see from their compass or airport reference map that they were on the wrong runway.
Among other things, investigators are looking at the runway lights, markings and a repaving project a week before the crash that changed the taxiway patterns at the Lexington airport.
Investigators also found there was only one controller in the tower, when two were required under FAA rules. After clearing the flight for takeoff, the controller turned his back to perform other duties as the plane headed down the wrong runway.