Feds Want More Safety Equipment at O'Hare Airport

Federal safety officials pressed the Federal Aviation Administration Tuesday to step up safety measures aimed at preventing severe near accidents on congested runways at O'Hare International Airport.

The National Transportation Safety Board voted Tuesday to keep one of its top priorities as reducing near accidents at airports, including the addition of costly new technology. The announcement comes as the FAA is set to install a new $12 million ground radar system at O'Hare, the site of five such near accidents this year.

But the new equipment will not reduce the chance of runway accidents enough, the NTSB says.

The system notifies only air traffic controllers, not pilots, of an imminent accident. The lag time in notification to pilots could make evasive action too late, the NTSB notes.

For more than a year, the FAA has been testing a system of runway lights that turn red when another plane is already on the runway at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said that when testing is complete, the agency will look at applying it to O'Hare.

"We are pushing hard on that kind of system, too, so that it works for all involved," Molinaro said.

"It is something we would absolutely look at for any large, busy airport like O'Hare."

The NTSB labels the FAA's speed on implementing additional safety measures "unacceptable." However, Molinaro said reducing near accidents "is a major focus" for the FAA.

In addition to the new radar system, the FAA has also been closely studying air traffic controller policy at O'Hare tower.

The NTSB cited a July 23 near accident at O'Hare in its call for better safeguards.

In that incident, a United jet carrying 120 passengers was directed to take off from a runway being crossed by a cargo jet at the same time. The United pilots pulled up early when they saw the cargo jet coming within 35 feet of disaster.

The FAA moved up its installation of the new ground radar to July from late 2008 following that incident.

Several other airports across the nation already have the system, and some aviation experts have blasted the agency for leaving O'Hare - one of the nation's busiest airports - out of the loop.

Also on Tuesday, the NTSB reiterated its call for computer- assisted train safety measures in the wake of two Metra derailments on Chicago's south side in 2003 and 2005.

The systems, though expensive and still in the testing stage, automatically stop a train that is traveling too fast for curves or ignoring switch signals, both of which were issues in the Metra derailments.

Metra officials are studying some pilot programs of the system, but the cost can reach into the tens of millions of dollars.

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