Omaha Airport Runway Safety Tool Shelved for Liability

Sep. 28--The Omaha Airport Authority will end testing and marketing of a system it says is capable of preventing runway collisions and saving lives.

Concerns about insurance liability, coupled with opposition from the National Air Traffic Controllers Union, persuaded authority board members and staff to abandon efforts to test and sell the device.

"Unfortunately, it might take an accident to get the ball rolling," said Don Smithey, the airport authority's chief administrator. "We're in the business of operating the airport. This was done as a contribution to aviation safety."

Even if the authority sold the device, the purchaser would have to agree to indemnify the authority. Otherwise, as the patent holder, the airport authority would not be able to afford the liability insurance premiums that would protect it in case the device ever failed, board members were told Tuesday during their regular monthly meeting.

"Park it," said David Sokol, board chairman. "Don't expose the authority to this liability."

The board instructed staff, though, to write a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration, reminding the agency that the system was available for testing, at no charge, in exchange for protecting the airport authority from liability.

The invention resulted from an FAA request in 2001 for help with a top priority: preventing runway collisions. The National Transportation Safety Board lists preventing runway incursions on its priority list.

NTSB's acting chairman, Mark Rosenker, said this month that the FAA's newest system is not adequate to prevent serious runway collisions.

Citing several recent near-collisions in which the system -- the Airport Movement Area Safety System -- did not perform, Rosenker said the situations instead were resolved by luck and flight crew actions bordering on the heroic.

"That is not good enough," he said Sept. 13 at the American Association of Airport Executives' Runway and Airport Safety Summit.

Recent near-accidents included one June 9 at Boston's Logan International Airport and another July 6 at New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport, where the safety system had been disabled to prevent nuisance alerts or it provided the alert too late.

In the JFK near-miss, an ABX DC-8 cargo plane pulled up just in time to avoid hitting an Israir Boeing 767 with 262 people aboard. The jets came within 45 feet of colliding in heavy rain after the 767 mistakenly taxied onto a runway where the DC-8 was taking off.

The Airport Movement Area Safety System uses radar to detect when something or someone is on a runway. Radar is expensive, Smithey said, and does not work properly in rain, snow or wind.

The system that Smithey and his employees devised uses inexpensive microwave technology that is readily available and impervious to bad weather. The system does not require monitoring by someone in the control tower as traditional radar does, Smithey said.

The system consists of a microwave sensor placed near an intersection that detects when a plane or equipment is moving toward a runway. That activates a voice recording in the tower to warn controllers of a potential collision. The system also can send alerts to pilots via a common radio frequency.

Incursions are not always reported when they happen at small airports with no air traffic controllers. The Omaha system is simple and inexpensive enough, Smithey said, to be used at those airports, as well. Each unit would cost from $1,800 to $2,500.

The system performed well enough in 2001 FAA tests in Omaha that an FAA official, in a strongly worded 2002 memo, lamented the lack of an FAA response.

Dennis Lawson, runway safety manager for the FAA central region, called the situation "a crying shame" and said it "borders on negligent."

Lawson wrote: "Any product that qualifies as 'Cheap, Fast and Effective' is unusual and certainly worth a look-see by senior Agency/Department decision makers. . . . This one could also very well qualify as that elusive silver bullet all the 'experts' say does not exist.

"Heaven help us when we have the fatal runway collision absent this kind of known technology and achievable capability in place. We, the FAA, have not done right by the flying public -- again."

Lawson was not available Tuesday to comment on the Omaha board's decision to stop testing or marketing the system.

FAA actions to reduce runway collisions have included implementing the Airport Movement Area Safety System in 34 airports nationwide since 2001, a spokeswoman said. Deployment is beginning for a supplement to that system, called Airport Surface Detection Equipment Model X, which would detect movement on runways.

The FAA has recorded a 40 percent decrease in the past four years in the most serious runway incursions, spokeswoman Rebecca Trexler said.

No one from the National Air Traffic Controllers Union was immediately available Tuesday to comment on why the union opposed testing the system.

The authority had been close to completing arrangements for the device to be tested in Cheyenne, Wyo., by the Department of Defense. The commercial airport there is controlled by the Defense Department and its military air traffic controllers. Those plans will be scrapped now.

Smithey said he hasn't given up hope that the system someday will be used, but he said that probably will happen outside the United States.

"It's certainly disappointing, and it's been very frustrating," Smithey said.

Lawson predicted in his 2002 memo that the system would first be used in another country:

"If we ever wake up and make it happen here, we'll be paying a lot for what would have been essentially free."

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