Dangerous near collisions on the nation's runways climbed for the second year in a row, prompting a renewed call by aviation accident investigators on Tuesday for new safety devices.
Led by several high-profile cases, the number of high-risk runway incidents climbed to 31 in fiscal 2006, up from 29 in 2005 and 28 in 2004.
Still, near collisions are very rare -- about one for every 2 million takeoffs and landings.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) defines such incidents as planes that nearly hit another aircraft, vehicle or pedestrian on the runway.
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Mark Rosenker said that incidents such as when two jets missed each other by 35 feet in Chicago on July 23 show that the aviation system has been lucky to avoid a major crash on a runway.
"It's unacceptable," Rosenker said at the NTSB's annual hearing to discuss its "Most Wanted" safety enhancements. "We've been running on luck for far too long."
The 2006 total remains well below the highest number of near collisions since 1998. In 2000, there were 67 near collisions, a rate of about one per million.
The FAA, the agency that regulates aviation, is just as concerned about the problem and is pursuing several technologies that will help reduce the danger, FAA Deputy Administrator Bobby Sturgell said.
The agency is testing lights embedded in runways that flash red to warn pilots when another plane gets too close. A navigation system expected in planes by 2014 will allow pilots to track other planes on the ground, Sturgell said.
"All of this demonstrates that the FAA is aggressively attacking the problem," he said.
Sturgell cautioned that the solutions are costly, and the agency needs time to fully test them before they are put into the field.
The most recent fatal crash in the USA resulted from a runway mistake. The pilots of Comair Flight 5191 tried to take off from the wrong runway, which was too short, on Aug. 27 in Lexington, Ky. The jet slammed into a row of trees, killing 49 of the 50 people aboard.
In addition, the NTSB is investigating a Continental Airlines Boeing 757 flight that landed Oct. 28 on a Newark taxiway instead of the nearby runway.
The NTSB also renewed calls to take more action to prevent jet fuel tanks from exploding.
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