Houses and businesses surrounding Midway International Airport severely limit the options for creating buffer zones or other safety measures to prevent accidents like last week's fatal runway skid, a city aviation official said.
There is no known remedy for the airport's lack of a 1,000-foot buffer zone at the end of runways, Erin O'Donnell, the city's deputy aviation commissioner and Midway manager, said Tuesday. The Federal Aviation Administration recommends the buffer zones for all commercial airports.
Studies by the city and the FAA in recent years determined that there is not enough room at the end of Midway's airstrips to install beds of crushable concrete that can slow an aircraft if it slides off the end of a runway, O'Donnell said.
Some safety experts have said the runway enhancement - known as Engineered Material Arresting Systems - might have prevented the accident.
A Southwest Airlines plane trying to land in a snowstorm Dec. 8 slid off the end of the 6,500-foot runway, plowed through a fence and struck two vehicles near a busy intersection. A 6-year-old boy in one of the vehicles was killed and 10 people, most on the ground, were injured. The boy's funeral is scheduled for Wednesday.
Only 82 feet separated the end of the runway and the fence. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident.
The one-square-mile airport was built in 1923 during the propeller era and has shorter runways than most major airports, with no room to expand. Midway is among nearly 300 U.S. commercial airports without the recommended runway buffers, according to the FAA.
A recent federal law seeks to encourage more airports to build EMAS systems or extend their runway barriers by requiring them to do one or the other by 2015.
"We're hopeful that with new legislation, there will be investment in research and development of new technology to address this issue of runway safety," O'Donnell said.
Planes began using the runway again Tuesday evening, FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said. It had been closed since the accident as workers repaired damaged navigation gear on the airfield.
The FAA asked city aviation officials 18 months ago to revise a 2004 report they submitted on recommendations for runway safety zones at Midway, Isham Cory said. The request did not indicate the FAA believed the runways were unsafe, she added.
"Part of the normal back and forth is that they're supposed to be coming up with a few solutions, and I think they are really trying," she said. "But they are short on space."
Also Tuesday, an attorney for the parents of the boy killed in the accident said he planned to file a lawsuit, although he declined to provide details.
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200- to 300-foot concrete beds would be made of lightweight bricks designed to collapse under the weight of an aircraft, safely slowing the plane.
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.
Safety zones were recommended a year ago