WASHINGTON – The number of near collisions on U.S. airport runways dropped to six in the last 12 months, half as many as the year before, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
There has been a dramatic decline in such incidents over the last decade. In 2000, the FAA reported 67 runway near collisions.
Reducing those incidents has long been a top safety priority for the FAA. Alarmed by a spike in near collisions, the agency convened an industry "call to action" meeting in 2007 to find solutions to the problem.
Federal Aviation Administrator Randy Babbitt credited the decline to the installation of new technology at airports, including runway lights that change color to warn pilots whether or not it's OK to enter a runway, requirements for improved signage and markings at airports, and improved airline pilot training on runway conflict scenarios.
The FAA and pilot organizations also have conducted education efforts aimed at private pilots.
The deadliest aviation accident in history, in which 583 people were killed, was a 1977 runway collision between two airliners at Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands. The worst U.S. runway accident involving two aircraft was a collision between a USAir 737 and a Skywest Metroliner commuter airplane at Los Angeles International Airport in February 1991 that killed 34 people.
"The goal we are working towards is zero runway incursions," Babbitt said in a statement. "I'm confident that the right combination of education and technology will help us get there."
He announced the decline in runway incidents at a news conference at Boston's Logan International Airport, where the FAA is installing an improved runway lighting system. Similar systems are in place at airports in Dallas, Los Angeles and San Diego. The FAA plans to install the systems at a total of 23 airports.
Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, attributed the decline in part to "the collaborative approach the FAA is taking to addressing safety matters and including controllers in that process."
Relations between controllers and FAA management were openly hostile during the Bush administration due in part to failed contract negotiations and differences over staffing. They've warmed considerably under the more labor-friendly Obama administration.
Near collisions usually involve two aircraft, but that isn't always the case. In one of the six incidents, a maintenance truck chased an animal across a runway at Garden City Regional Airport in Kansas in March just as a Cessna Citation — a small jet — was landing. Only 50 feet separated the plane and the truck as the jet passed overhead.