Nov. 18--WASHINGTON -- The head of the Federal Aviation Administration said yesterday that one cause of a troubling surge in runway incidents at Logan International Airport is the construction of a 5,000-foot runway.
Construction activity on Logan's cramped airfield is distracting pilots and "has caused some pilots to inadvertently cross" into runways being used by other planes, Marion Blakey, FAA administrator, told a congressional subcommittee.
Several of Logan's recent near-collisions occurred when pilots crossed onto active runways, despite warnings from air traffic controllers and radio reminders. The $85 million runway, construction of which started in April and is scheduled to be completed next year, is about 2,000 feet from one cluster of runway incidents, labeled a hot spot by the FAA.
Rory Kay, a captain for United Air Lines and a vice chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association, said he dreads flying into Logan because of its relatively small footprint and five intersecting runways. "I've been flying airliners for 25 years and Boston, to me, is one of the most complex airports to run around," he said in an interview.
The building of the new runway has made the situation worse, he said.
"One of our toughest jobs is going into airports you're not used to or that have significant surface construction going on," he said. "It can be like negotiating your way around a new housing development."
William Davis, director of the FAA's runway safety program, said that the congestion around the construction, while not the sole factor in Logan's recent surge in near-collisions, adds to the "hubbub" at Logan.
"To the extent that you disrupt the normal flow, then you have the opportunity for those kinds of incidents," he said in an interview.
To help prevent incidents during Logan's runway construction, Blakey said, the FAA and the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates the airport, are improving centerline markings and signs to better direct pilots. That work is to be completed by the middle of next year.
To better lead pilots along Logan's runways, Massport officials said they have added flashing yellow lights at runway intersections, repainted "hold lines," where planes are supposed to stop, with highly reflective paint, and added additional hold lines at the hot spots.
Construction of runway 14/32, which Massport officials say is expected to slash takeoff and landing delays by almost 25 percent, received the go-ahead in 2003 after a judge lifted a nearly 30-year injunction that held up the project.
The aviation subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation called yesterday's two-hour hearing and summoned Blakey to discuss runway incidents and other aviation safety issues.
Much of the runway safety discussion focused on three airports where the closest calls happened recently, including one at Logan on June 9.
An Aer Lingus Airbus A330 and a US Airways Boeing 737, carrying a combined 381 passengers and crew members, came within 106 feet vertically and 379 feet horizontally of colliding as they rumbled toward takeoff at more than 160 miles per hour on intersecting runways.
A controller responsible for runways on the east side of the airport gave permission for a plane to take off at the same time a controller responsible for the west side cleared another plane for takeoff.
Blakey said that to address that problem, the FAA had placed restrictions on air traffic controllers at Logan until they are retrained "to improve coordination within the tower."
The controllers in the June 9 incident were suspended and sent to retraining. The pilots of the US Airways jet were recently commended by the FAA for avoiding a collision.
A team of aviation specialists from the FAA came to the airport last month to analyze why there have been 16 runway incidents since Oct. 1, 2004, including how the runway construction and recent repaving of one of Logan's main runways could be contributing to pilot confusion. That report is expected to be released later this month, officials said.
Last week the FAA made Logan the first airport in the country to get a temporary software fix so that existing ground radar can follow planes on intersecting runways better. Earlier this month, it put the airport on the list to get a more sophisticated system that works better at night and in bad weather by 2011.
Blakey said the FAA has made progress curbing the number of near-collisions on runways nationwide, which are down more than 40 percent since 2001. In the last year, however, the FAA recorded three of the most severe runway incidents, including the one June 9 at Logan. The airport had no officially reported runway incidents between Oct. 1, 2003, and Sept. 30, 2004. Logan's tally of 16 since then is more than double the total for the previous three-year period and is the largest number of runway incursions at a single airport nationwide. Logan is the nation's 17th busiest airport, averaging 1,250 arrivals and departures daily.
The head of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which is negotiating a new contract with the FAA, told the subcommittee the incursions were the fault of outdated ground radar equipment and a staffing shortage that requires that fewer controllers guide more planes.
John S. Carr, the union's president, said the Logan tower should have at least the 38 controllers the FAA has authorized, but it is staffed with 31 controllers and two trainees.
"We believe that an important reason for the incursions at Boston's Logan Airport is the FAA's failure to adequately staff the facility," he said.
Blakey told the subcommittee that the number of near-collisions on the nation's runways is low when compared to the number of aircraft operations, about 5.4 runway incidents for every 1 million operations. "Further reducing the rate is quite challenging, but a challenge we are undertaking, " she said.