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...


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.

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