Pilots Mistake Taxiway for Runway at Sea-Tac

At least eight times since December 1999, experienced pilots from five different airlines have mistaken Taxiway Tango for Runway 16R.


Nov. 13--When Roger Seher flew a 37-seat Air Canada Jazz turboprop into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in January 2004, he was aware of the "Taxiway Tango" problem.

He'd flown into Sea-Tac many times and knew pilots arriving from the north sometimes confused the western landing strip, Runway 16 Right, with the nearby taxiway, called T or Tango. He also knew Sea-Tac had placed a 25-foot-by-25-foot "X" at the end of the taxiway to prevent potentially catastrophic landings there.

So after touching down that morning, as he later reported, Seher and his co-pilot were startled to hear from the control tower: "You have landed on taxiway."

At least eight times since December 1999, experienced pilots from five different airlines have mistaken Taxiway Tango for Runway 16R.

Three planes, including an American Airlines MD-80 carrying 111 passengers and crew members, actually landed on the taxiway. Five others -- most recently in January of this year -- either performed last-minute "sidesteps" to shift course and land on 16R, or aborted their landings before circling and touching down safely on the runway.

The incidents have alarmed the highest levels of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which has repeatedly warned that the confusion could cause a collision between incoming jets and planes or vehicles on the taxiway.

Acting NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker wrote in an Aug. 8 letter to Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Marion Blakey that "the Safety Board believes the Taxiway T situation at Sea-Tac is a serious problem that has the potential to contribute to or cause a major accident, yet the FAA is unwilling to take interim steps to mark the taxiway."

The FAA and NTSB have been feuding over the issue for years, but local FAA and Sea-Tac officials were unaware of the August letter until a reporter brought it to their attention late last month.

They disagree with the NTSB's conclusions, as did several pilots interviewed by The Seattle Times. They cite multiple steps taken in recent years to make Sea-Tac's runways more visible and to educate pilots, and they insist passengers have little to fear.

"I believe the problem's fixed," said Mark Coates, manager of operations at Sea-Tac.

"We haven't had an unsafe landing on Taxiway Tango yet. Every one of them was wrong, and every one of them should not have happened, but they were not unsafe."

The NTSB wants Sea-Tac to take additional actions that sound simple, such as painting warnings on the taxiway surface itself. But FAA and Sea-Tac officials say there is no proof those measures would work.

Taxiway Tango is lightly used, mostly by small private planes and corporate jets rolling to the general aviation hangar on the airport's west side. Those planes represent just 1 percent of the traffic at Sea-Tac.

Much of the material produced by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration during their review of the Taxiway Tango situation at Sea-Tac Airport is contained in public documents.

Commercial jets use Tango less often, mostly to reach parking spots on the edge of the taxiway during weather delays or when overnight parking at the terminal is full.

The taxiway was completed in October 1999, an accessory to the planned third runway that has been delayed for years by court battles.

Pilots noticed it right away.

"We started having issues with that [taxiway] almost from day one," said a senior commercial pilot who has been flying into Sea-Tac since 1977. His employer allowed him to speak only on condition neither was identified.

From the air, the taxiway's pristine pavement draws the eye, pilots say.

"When you're 15 or 20 miles from the airport, you pick up this piece of concrete first because it's newer and brighter," said Jack Wilkes, an Alaska Airlines 737 captain with 34 years of experience and air-safety chairman for Alaska's pilots union.

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