Federal Aviation Administration officials are calling a near-collision at San Francisco International Airport the most serious incident of its kind in at least a decade.
The FAA announced Friday it has categorized the May 26 incident in which a Republic Airlines pilot had to take off to avoid colliding with a SkyWest Airlines plane on the runway as a level A incursion. On a scale of incursions from A to D, the most serious is A.
"Every category A is a serious event, and it is a serious concern for us," said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor. "This wasn't a procedural issue; this was caused by a good controller with a lot of experience making a mistake."
The controller has about 20 years experience, and since the incursion he has had to get recertified for his job, Gregor said.
Other than the pilots and air-traffic controllers, it's doubtful anyone knew about the incursion when it happened, Gregor said, adding that it did not affect operations at SFO. So far this fiscal year, there have been 11 category A incursions nationwide, out of more than 34 million takeoffs and landings.
The severity of the incursion has caused the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate as well.
"We investigate probably just a handful (of incursions) a year," said safety board spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz.
According to the safety board's press release, the incursion happened about 1:30 p.m. when an SFO tower controller cleared SkyWest Airlines Flight 5741 from Modesto to land on runway 28R. The same controller then cleared Republic Airlines Flight 4912 to Los Angeles to take off from runway 1L, which intersects runway 28R.
When the SkyWest plane landed, a warning device known as the Airport Movement Area Safety System alerted the traffic controller that the two airplanes were on a collision course, the safety board said. The controller then ordered the SkyWest flight to halt short of runway 1L, but the plane couldn't stop until it reached the middle of the runway. The Republic Airlines pilot had to take off to avoid colliding with the SkyWest plane.
According to the SkyWest crew, the Republic Airlines plane flew over it by 30 to 50 feet.
Airport officials are notified about such incursions, but there is nothing they can really do unless they involve one of the airport's vehicles, which this didn't, SFO spokesman Mike McCarron said.
Safety board officials said their investigation could be completed in the fall and may result in some safety recommendations to the FAA, which doesn't have to follow them.
The safety board lists runway incursions as one of the most serious transportation safety issues.
As a result, it has recommended that aircraft be equipped with devices such as the Airport Movement Area Safety System and advises pilots not to cross actively used runways without the approval of a controller. Current regulations do not require pilots to get clearance to cross each runway while taxiing for takeoffs and landings.
"It would slow down the process of taxiing, but we think it would improve safety," Lopatkiewicz said about the runway recommendation.
Reach Mark Abramson at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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