Midway Got FAA Runway Edict in '04

Dec. 13--Chicago has failed to come up with an acceptable plan to improve safety zones on the fringes of Midway Airport runways--more than a year after the city was ordered to do so by the federal government.

The Federal Aviation Administration, in the wake of last week's fatal Southwest Airlines accident at Midway, says it is still waiting.

The FAA asked city aviation officials in the spring of 2004 to submit safety recommendations for the zones, which are spots where planes can safely stop if they overrun a runway. None of Midway's runways comes close to meeting FAA standards that call for at least a 1,000-foot safety zone at the end of each airstrip.

Still, various solutions are available, even at an airport like Midway, where room to extend runways is limited.

The request to the city came after an FAA inventory of runways across the Midwest found that improvements should be made at Midway to better protect airline passengers, as well as people on the busy streets and in neighborhoods surrounding the airport.

"We gave the report back to the city in May 2004 and said no to the plan," FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said. "We want some changes made. We haven't gotten anything back from the city."

Acting Chicago Aviation Commissioner Patrick Harney said his staff is "continuously talking" with FAA officials. Harney added that Midway is in compliance with all federal safety regulations.

But Midway, covering just 1 square mile, was built before the larger, heavier and faster planes of the Jet Age. As such, safety margins are tight, especially in bad weather similar to that of Thursday night when the Southwest plane skidded off the runway during a snowstorm and ended up on top of cars on Central Avenue, killing 6-year-old Joshua Woods of Leroy, Ind.

One possible alternative that has been used successfully at more than a dozen other U.S. airports to improve safety beyond the edges of runways involves deploying barriers that arrest and absorb the momentum of errant airplanes. Other technologies include laying down beds of soft concrete that crush beneath landing-gear wheels to slow planes, or tunneling nearby streets below the airport to extend existing runway safety zones.

For a time, during planning for the almost $1 billion new Midway passenger terminal that was completed in 2004, it appeared city aviation officials would address the issue. City aviation officials had been looking at various technologies for years. Then in 1996, the city started selling bonds for the Midway terminal redevelopment project, and ATA Airlines and Southwest were growing their already strong operations at Midway, generating plenty of landing fees, rents and other revenue for the city.

"I don't think costs were an issue because Midway was in an investment mode," said Mary Rose Loney, who was Chicago aviation commissioner from 1996 to late 1999.

Officials in the Chicago Department of Aviation were most interested in putting up barriers to stop planes that overran runways.

"We started an analysis, but it wasn't finished before I left," Loney said. "But I recalled that the analysis showed that, given the state of the technology at the time, there wasn't adequate room to put the barricades at the runway ends."

Erin O'Donnell, a deputy city aviation commissioner who manages Midway, said she is hopeful that new safety technologies come along soon that would allow a landlocked airport like Midway to make the safety improvements. "Midway is not alone in this challenge," she said.

Since 2000, the FAA has made an inventory of runway safety areas at Midwest airports and targeted the zones that need improvements.

Between 2000 and now, airports in the region have improved runway safety areas on 46 runways, Molinaro said.

Thirty-seven airports, including Midway, have still not complied, Molinaro said.

All except two of the shorter runways at O'Hare International Airport meet or exceed the 1,000-foot standard, the FAA said, adding that the runway safety area on those shorter runways varies from 500 feet to 896 feet.

"We are more focused on Midway because the runways there are shorter than the runways at O'Hare," Molinaro said.

Almost 300 of the U.S.' 427 commercial airports have runways that do not meet the 1,000-foot standard. They must comply or provide alternate safety methods by 2015.

None of the four landing approaches to Midway meet the 1,000-foot standard, the FAA said.

A scant 82 feet separated the end of Runway 31 Center and a jet-engine blast wall struck by the Southwest Boeing 737-700 on Thursday. The safety zone at the other end of the same runway is even shorter, only 48 feet, according to the FAA.

Midway's longest safety zone, off the tip of Runway 22 Left on the northeast side of the airport, measures 127 feet, the FAA said.

Extending the zones to 1,000 feet would require major demolition of dozens--perhaps hundreds--of homes and businesses surrounding the airport, especially on the southwest, southeast and northwest corners. An expansion of runway safety areas beyond the existing northeast corner of the airport would primarily affect remote parking lots.

The southeast corner would likely be the most challenging. A 1,000-foot extension of runway 31C would jut deeply into dozens of residences, reaching about as far as West 64th Street and Kilpatrick Avenue. The extension of the 31R runway would cut across Cicero Avenue and clip at least a dozen homes between West 61st and West 62nd Streets, between Cicero and South Keating Avenue.

Meanwhile, the family of Joshua Woods was busy Monday making burial funeral arrangements for the boy.

Visitation will be from 4 to 9 p.m. Tuesday in Smits Funeral Homes-Steger Memorial Chapel in Steger.

A funeral service will be held at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday in the home at 3045 Chicago Rd.

Tribune staff reporters John McCormick and Carlos Sadovi contributed to this report