Runway Safety System Has Pilots Seeing Red

After a year of tests at one of the nation's busiest airports, officials with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are optimistic that the runway status light system can be approved for use at busy airports around the country.


Current warning systems alert controllers, not pilots, if planes get too close on runways. NTSB investigators have found that the warnings are better than nothing, but they leave much to be desired.

The quest for a way to warn pilots directly goes back to the early 1990s. Scientists at MIT Lincoln Laboratory experimented with runway warning lights at Boston's Logan International Airport. The system did not work well because it was difficult to track planes on the ground with radar, says Jim Eggert, who is the laboratory's project leader in Dallas.

In the ensuing decade, however, the technology to monitor aircraft on the ground improved exponentially. Computers can follow planes with great precision. The system was revived in Dallas, where airport officials had spent $6.4 million on a state-of-the-art system to track taxiing aircraft.

Controllers are still in charge of choreographing departures and arrivals. Richard Loewen, who heads the National Air Traffic Controllers Association's Dallas tower branch, says controllers appreciate the fact that the lights provide additional safety without slowing traffic.

If there is a downside to the system, according to Loewen and others, it is that it may take several years to receive final permission and funding from the FAA.

The basis for the system, computers that track planes on the ground, was supposed to be put into 35 airports, but budget shortfalls have slowed its deployment.

Loewen says air-traffic controllers don't understand why it's taking so long. Those who work in a tower on the other side of the airport, where the lights are not in operation, want the system installed there, too, he says.



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