The San Francisco and San Jose airports are two of the nation's riskiest when it comes to near-collisions on runways or incidents in which pilots get confused while taxiing around the airfields, the Federal Aviation Administration said Monday.
Each airport had four reported runway incursions in the past year, defined as an incident that violates procedures and could lead to a collision between planes, the agency said. One of those incidents was a near-collision in May at San Francisco International between a jetliner and a turboprop plane that was caused by an air traffic controller's mistake.
SFO and San Jose were each on a list of 20 U.S. airports that the FAA studied because they had a high number of runway incursions or high number of incidents in which pilots were confused while taxiing around the airfield. The agency selected the airports based on the number and severity of incidents.
Nationwide, there were fewer reports of near-collisions and other dangerous incidents over the past year from a year earlier - the total dropped to 330 between October 2006 and September 2007, compared with 378 the previous year, the FAA said. But San Francisco and San Jose, which had no such incidents two years ago, had eight between them in the past year.
"When it comes to runway safety, we can't afford to overlook anything," Bobby Sturgell, acting administrator for the FAA, said during a news conference at which the agency released the numbers and general recommendations for changes at the airports. "Our runways are safe, and this call to action ratcheted that up a notch."
At the top of the list nationally was Nevada's North Las Vegas Airport, which reported 11 incursions during the year ending Sept. 30, or more than five for every 100,000 flights out of the airfield. The totals at San Francisco and San Jose each amounted to between 1 and 2 incursions for every 100,000 flights in 2007.
Oakland International Airport avoided the FAA's list, logging just one incursion in the past year.
The FAA study was released the same day the Associated Press reported that NASA had withheld results of a survey in which airline pilots reported at least twice as many runway incursions and other dangerous situations, such as near-midair collisions and bird strikes, as government monitoring systems show.
Runway incursions range from incidents in which a collision is imminent, or two planes actually collide, to technical violations such as when a pilot rolls a few feet past a designated holding point on a runway while waiting to take off.
Another factor that landed airports on the study list was whether pilots reported confusion over where they were on an airfield or which runway they were supposed to use - both situations that carry the potential for causing a collision, the FAA says.
"San Francisco was on that list because we have had a number of runway incursions there ... including one especially nasty one in May," said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor, referring to the incident in which two passenger planes almost collided because of an air traffic controller's mistake.
In that instance, the pilot of a Republic Airlines jetliner took off earlier than planned when he noticed the smaller SkyWest Airlines turboprop converging on his path from an intersecting runway. The incursion occurred because an air traffic controller forgot he or she had cleared the SkyWest plan for landing.
The 19-year veteran controller was decertified, required to complete additional training and then recertified.
Mineta San Jose International Airport also reported four runway incursions during the past year, all of them considered technical violations, the FAA said. There were also two instances in the past two years in which pilots got confused about where they were on the runway.
FAA officials did not detail any systematic problems at either San Francisco or San Jose.
Before releasing its report Monday, the FAA spent two months talking with airlines, airports, commercial and private pilots, air traffic controllers, mechanics and others at each of the 20 airports. The idea was to solicit suggestions for improving safety, part of a push by the FAA to improve runway safety at all U.S. airports.
"We do have runway safety meetings at least annually at big airports, but these were more intensive brainstorming sessions," Gregor said. "People were really encouraged to think outside the box, and throw out any idea no matter how unusual it might seem."
The FAA said Monday that in general, the airports need to improve runway signage, come up with more explicit taxiing instructions for pilots, and provide more training for aviation workers, particularly those who drive any vehicles on runways.
Gregor and San Francisco International spokesman Mike McCarron said airport officials are updating a training video for people who drive on the SFO airfield. San Jose has agreed to put new lights at the end of one runway where pilots have been confused in the past, Gregor said.
McCarron said San Francisco airport officials realized even before the federal report was issued that they face safety challenges.
"It is what it is," he said. "We're not at all surprised."
Because SFO has intersecting runways, McCarron said, airport officials are always "very diligent" about addressing incursions and other potential dangers.
McCarron cited an incident a few years ago in which an airline mechanic was taxiing a plane to a gate and crossed a runway he did not have permission to enter.
The airport instituted a mandatory refresher training course for all airline mechanics, McCarron said. It also recently realigned one of the taxiways so it no longer crosses a runway.
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Hidden report: NASA has withheld results of a survey of pilots about safety problems for fear they might upset travelers and hurt airlines. A10
The 20 airports included in the Federal Aviation Administration study. They are listed alphabetically by city:
-- Atlanta: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International
-- Atlanta: Dekalb Peachtree
-- Boston: Logan International
-- Chicago: O'Hare International
-- Dallas: Dallas/Fort Worth International
-- Denver: Denver International
-- Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International
-- Las Vegas: McCarran International
-- Las Vegas: North Las Vegas
-- Long Beach: Long Beach/Daugherty Field
-- Los Angeles: Los Angeles International
-- Miami: Miami International
-- Milwaukee: General Mitchell International
-- New York: John F. Kennedy International
-- Orlando: Orlando International
-- Philadelphia: Philadelphia International
-- Reno: Reno-Tahoe International
-- San Francisco: San Francisco International
-- San Jose: Mineta San Jose International
-- Santa Ana: John Wayne Airport (Orange County)