Eleven months ago, two passenger planes came within 50 feet of what surely would have been a devastating crash in bad weather on a Denver International Airport runway.
The National Safety Transportation Board, in a report released last week, described the moments in which a Frontier Airlines jet managed to abort its planned landing and avoid hitting a turboprop that was on a runway where it shouldn't have been.
The report underscores the need for DIA to get an upgraded tracking system using radar and satellite to monitor flight arrival and surface movement of planes and vehicles.
Denver is on the list to have such a system - called the Airport Surface Detection System, Model X or ASDE-X - up and running in 2009.
However, this near disaster, one of two at DIA that were ranked among the most serious in the country last year, points out the need for the Federal Aviation Administration to install and have that system operational here as soon as possible.
The ASDE-X was created to help reduce these so-called runway incursions. It gives air traffic controllers detailed coverage of movement on runways and taxiways and enables them to prevent potential conflicts.
In addition, the NTSB is pushing the development of technology that would send warnings directly to pilots directly without first going through busy controllers.
Currently, DIA uses an older system. Controllers quoted in the report said it is inaccurate at times, showing planes where they're not and failing to record others. It is unclear whether those shortcomings contributed to the Jan. 5 incident, but they certainly make for a dangerous situation.
In 2006, DIA was the fifth-busiest airport in the country with 47.3 million passengers. This year, the airport consistently exceeded monthly passenger loads from prior years and is on pace to have a record year.
The near-crash last January is only one of several recent runway incursions at DIA. Another close call happened Feb. 2 when an airport snowplow operator crossed a runway in front of a United Airlines jet that had just touched down. Both were in the government's "most serious" category, and DIA was the only U.S. airport to have two of those, according to a Denver Post story by Jeffrey Leib.
As a result, the airport has overhauled its runway and taxiway safety program, adding colorful signs to intersections where roads intersect with taxiways and runways. It is adding "rumble strips" in the pavement so drivers will get an additional warning. The airport sharply reduced the number of people authorized to drive around busy areas where planes operate, and it is mandating additional driver training.
We're heartened to see airport managers taking significant steps toward making DIA a safer airport. Now it's time for the FAA to step up and quickly bring state of the art technology to a busy airport that badly needs it.