Airport making moves to fix runway safety issues

Oct. 24--San Jose and San Francisco's airports both had a troubling uptick in the number of obstructed-runway incidents in the past 12 months, the Federal Aviation Administration reported Monday, although all but one of the incidents was classified as minor.

Even more serious at San Jose, the FAA reported, was that there were several instances of small-aircraft pilots being confused about which of the airport's three parallel runways to use for landing. Monday, the FAA announced some remedies it had suggested to 20 airports nationwide that had runway-safety problems.

San Jose officials said they already are planning to install additional lighting on the smallest runway. San Francisco airport officials said they have trained more drivers, improved signs for pilots and re-routed a taxiway to avoid crossing runways.

In August, the FAA launched a two-month nationwide study of 20 airports -- including San Jose and San Francisco -- that had a high number of "runway incursions" as well as a high number of incidents in which pilots were confused while taxiing around the airfield.

The main issue at Mineta San Jose International Airport was an increase "in the number of instances of pilots trying to land on the wrong runway," FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said. "And we wanted to address that issue now, before it becomes more of a problem."

San Jose has three parallel runways -- two 11,000-foot runways for commercial aircraft and a 4,000-foot runway for smaller aircraft -- and on "several occasions" pilots who were instructed to land on the commercial runway tried to land on the smaller one, according to Gregor.

To fix the problem, the FAA recommended that San Jose airport install lights at the end of one of the runways to reduce the chance pilots confuse the shorter runway for the longer one, Gregor said.

"It seems to us the solutions are rather simple," Gregor said.

Some local pilots said they suspected that the pilot-confusion issues probably come up most with pilots who don't fly into San Jose often.

Jacob Savage, a 17-year-old pilot who occasionally flies into San Jose, said he had an episode that was slightly confusing last year. He said as he approached San Jose's airport, he was initially given clearance to land on the shorter runway, but shortly after was given the go-ahead to land on one of the larger runways. "It's quite a thrill because it's such a huge runway," Savage said. However, it was a bit of a scramble for him.

"I had to re-do my pattern," he said.

For experienced pilots or pilots of larger aircraft, landing in San Jose usually is simpler than navigating the crisscrossing runways of places such as San Francisco, some said.

"You can land here easier than you can drive here," said Donald Simpson, a former American Airlines pilot who now sits on San Jose's airport commission.

The FAA study focused primarily on runway incursions, which it defines as an incident where a plane, vehicle or pedestrian on the ground is too close to, or in the way of, a plane that is landing or taking off, Gregor said. San Jose and San Francisco each reported four incursions in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

In San Jose, the four runway incursions were given a D grade, the least serious rating from the FAA. From 2003 to 2006, San Jose had five incursions.

Mark DePlasco, air traffic manager for San Jose, said the uptick in San Jose incursions was caused by construction-related changes at the airport, and they haven't had any since February.

"The fact they are minor, as the FAA defines them, is welcome news," airport spokesman David Vossbrink said. "We want to make sure we can work with the FAA to reduce that number."

San Francisco had one of only four incursions nationwide that were rated the most serious. That incident occurred in May, when a mistake by an air traffic controller led to a near-collision of two passenger planes, said spokesman Mike McCarron.

The other San Francisco incidents were rated as not serious, Gregor said.

As part of its findings, the FAA has requested airports with more than 1.5 million departures more quickly enhance some runway markings that were originally required by June 30, 2008.

That process has been completed in San Jose, said Vossbrink, who added that the airport is seeking funding from the FAA to add runway lighting.

As part of its study, the FAA spent about two months talking with airlines, airports, air traffic control and pilot unions, and aerospace manufacturers.

The FAA released its findings late Monday, after the Associated Press reported that a separate government agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Agency, was withholding its own findings about runway safety to avoid upsetting travelers or affecting airline profits.

NASA gathered the information through an $8.5 million federal safety project in phone interviews with about 24,000 commercial and general aviation pilots over a four-year period, the Associated Press reported. Since shutting down the project more than a year ago, NASA has refused to release its findings, according to the Associated Press.

In a statement, NASA administrator Mike Griffin said he was just made aware of the issues and is reviewing the Freedom of Information Act to determine what information can be made available.

By Mark Gomez and Deborah Lohse. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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