Congress is prodding the Federal Aviation Administration to install technology quickly that would improve runway safety and reduce congestion at O'Hare International Airport, officials said Wednesday.
The House Appropriations Committee, critical of the FAA's slow pace toward deploying the system at O'Hare and other major airports, proposes to increase funding for the program by $10 million nationwide in fiscal 2007, bringing total spending to $73.6 million.
FAA officials said they plan to install the technology at Midway Airport too, although the agency has not released a timetable for either Chicago airport.
The technology, called Airport Surface Detection Equipment-X, is designed to give pilots and air-traffic controllers immediate alerts of probable collisions on the airfield. It tracks planes by collecting data from multiple sources, including radar equipment and airplane transponders, to create a real-time map of all airplanes and other vehicles operating on an airfield, according to the FAA.
The extra money from Congress is intended to allow the FAA to install the system "earlier than currently planned," the committee said in a report that mentioned O'Hare as the airport where the FAA must focus the most to speed up deployment.
The lawmakers' push for the FAA to act expeditiously follows two runway incidents at O'Hare in a two-day period in March, including one in which two planes came within 100 feet of colliding during takeoff on intersecting runways. A third incident that is still being investigated as a possible runway incursion followed a few days later, the FAA said.
Existing runway-safety equipment at O'Hare sends such runway-incursion warnings only to controllers, and it often provides less than 10 seconds' warning before an impending accident for the controller to pass along the information to pilots.
The current system, called Airport Movement Area Safety System, has limited capabilities at night or when visibility is poor. Even flocks of birds can interfere with the current technology, which also is unable to provide any warning when planes are operating on intersecting runways, officials said.
The more sophisticated aircraft-detection system would also help air-traffic controllers manage planes on the ground more efficiently, providing a temporary tool to increase the airport's hourly capacity for takeoffs and landings until new runways are built.
The National Transportation Safety Board and other aviation watchdog groups have advocated since 1990 that the FAA develop technologies to prevent runway incursions and ground collisions, which are the leading safety risk at airports.
The FAA announced in November that it planned to deploy the new runway-safety system at 14 airports, beginning in January at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Other airports that now have the system include Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee; Green State Airport in Providence, R.I.; Orlando International Airport; Houston Hobby Airport; and Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, according to the FAA.
The FAA has invested about $250 million in the system and expects to spend a total of $505 million to complete the program, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general.
The House committee's proposed funding increase for the system in fiscal 2007 requires approval by the full Congress. It is contained in legislation that would speed up the rollout of runway safety and satellite navigation tools.
In addition, the committee is calling on the FAA to accelerate the modernization of air traffic-control systems at radar facilities in Chicago and eight other cities.
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