Southern California’s Busiest Airports Recorded Some of the Nation’s Worst Rates

Local airports score poorly in runway errors
By Doug Irving
Daily Breeze

Three of Southern California’s busiest airports recorded some of the nation’s worst rates of runway mistakes in the past year, according to federal statistics from top commercial airports. Those mistakes could have put airplanes on the ground in danger of a collision, although most were caught long before they posed a serious threat. John Wayne Airport in Orange County had the second-highest rate of runway mistakes among the busiest commercial airports, the statistics show. Long Beach Airport followed with the third-highest rate.

Los Angeles International Airport ranked sixth, a marked improvement from the days when it led the nation in the number of airplanes wandering too close to each other on its runways. The latest numbers still place it squarely among the worst of the big airports in close calls on the runways, though the worst is Boston’s Logan International Airport.

Logan had a rate of mistakes more than twice that of LAX. Its unusually high numbers have touched off a federal investigation to determine the cause.

The statistics compare the number and rate of runway close calls at the nation’s 25 busiest airports. They include the airports in Orange County and Long Beach because both serve some commercial airlines in addition to private and business planes.

It’s hard to tell if the statistics for each airport show a trend, or a fluke. The number of mistakes at John Wayne had dropped in recent years, then bounced upward in 2004 and 2005. The numbers at Long Beach have held steady, even as traffic there increased.

“They all three had bad years,” said Donn Walker, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA tracks the mistakes as “runway incursions” — any misstep that puts an airplane or vehicle too close to a runway with another airplane landing or taking off. An incursion can be as minor as a plane rolling a few feet past its stop sign, or as deadly as a high-speed collision.

None of the three Southern California airports included in the statistics reported a serious incursion in the past fiscal year, which ended on the last day of September. LAX had one in mid-2004, when an air-traffic controller mistakenly directed an airliner onto a runway as an international jumbo jet was landing.

The pilot of the jumbo jet saw the other plane in time and pulled up, clearing it by only 200 feet.

Nationwide, the number of serious runway mistakes has dropped steadily in recent years, according to an FAA report on runway safety released in August. It reported 150 serious incursions from 2001 to 2004; five caused collisions, but none was fatal.

The overall rate of runway mistakes — from missed stops to full collisions — has changed little in the past few years, the report found. A runway incursion happens somewhere in America about once a day.

Orange County’s John Wayne Airport reported eight runway mistakes in the past year — twice as many as the year before. Long Beach Airport had six incursions, one more than it reported the year before.

With six incidents in 2005, LAX reported a rate of 1.22 incursions per 100,000 operations.

Officials in Orange County and Long Beach said they had not seen the federal statistics and could not comment in detail on them. Both airports handle more private and business fliers who often have less experience and training than the pilots of bigger commercial airliners.

“Every airport has concerns with runway incursions,” said Sharon Diggs-Jackson, a spokeswoman at Long Beach Airport. “We take that very seriously, just as all airports do.”

Most of the runway problems at LAX have happened on the two runways that stretch side by side along the south edge of the airport. Airplanes landing on the outside runway have to get across the inside runway to reach the terminals; they sometimes fail to stop and wait before crossing the line.

Airport managers want to move the southernmost runway and build a center taxiway, where planes could pause before approaching the second runway. They expect the project to cost $328 million.

“It’s the configuration of this airport” that lends itself to runway mistakes, said Michael DiGirolamo, the deputy executive director of airport operations for Los Angeles World Airports. “This airport was designed for a lot less operations and smaller airplanes.”

Air traffic controllers at LAX have warned that staffing shortages will make the runways more dangerous. Michael Foote, a spokesman for the controllers union, said the number of runway mistakes will rise if staffing levels fall. “You’re going to find they’re going to trend upward,” he said.

Jack Kenton, a vice president of the California Pilots Association, has flown into LAX as a federal aviation safety inspector, and into Long Beach as a private pilot. Long Beach can be tricky, he said, because of its crisscross runways. LAX is pretty straightforward, as long as you mind where you are.

He questioned whether the incursion reports really show much of a safety threat. “They’re often next to nothing, (like) the guy stuck his nose over the hold line,” he said.

“But these things add up, and people say, ‘Oh, we’ve got all these problems here.’ “

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