Washington --- New cockpit technology could reduce a "safety gap" on airport runways that has sparked a rise of potentially fatal accidents this year, federal safety officials said Tuesday during a symposium on runway safety.
The forum came in the wake of two aborted takeoffs in the past three months at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the world's busiest airport.
Check out the NTSB site for more information, including animation of several near misses.
National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Mark Rosenker would not speculate about the incidents, which were attributed to errors by air-traffic controllers. But he said they were likely "part of a trend we are very concerned about."
"There is what we believe to be a safety gap," Rosenker said in an interview.
The Federal Aviation Administration said last week it had asked the airline industry to design a cockpit device to help pilots avoid the wrong runway by showing their position on an airport map.
But the device would still not show the location of other planes, and Rosenker expressed frustration that the FAA has not pressed the industry further on the issue.
"I have said it before and will say it again, luck should not be a part of the safety equation," Rosenker said at the forum.
Rosenker said the global positioning maps, which would be similar to those found in cars, could still help drive down the number of "runway incursions," which are up 18 percent this year compared with this time last year, according to the NTSB.
The spike from 138 to 163 incidents in the first two-and-a-half months of 2007 follows a 40 percent drop in the number of the most serious accidents since 2001, according to the FAA.
In a March 3 incident in Atlanta, a Los Angeles-bound Boeing 767 had to abort a takeoff after a controller mistakenly cleared two airplanes to taxi across the path of the accelerating jet. No one was injured in that or the other recent Hartsfield incident.
But the forum also highlighted a 1990 runway accident in Atlanta, where two planes collided after being cleared to land on the same runway, killing a pilot. The safety board determined the cause of the crash to be a controller error, but also blamed the FAA for its failure "to provide air traffic control procedures that adequately take into consideration human performance factors."
More recent runway confusion at other airports has also been fatal. Last August, the crew of a jet trying to take off in Lexington, Ky., picked the wrong runway and crashed into a field, killing 49 of the 50 people on board.
Meanwhile, the aviation agency is studying other new technologies for ensuring runway safety, including runway lights similar to traffic lights that tell pilots whether or not a runway is clear. The system is already in place at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
The safety board has been calling for a system to warn pilots of impending runway collisions for more than a decade, but the FAA has said the necessary technology is still years away.
In addition to discussing current runway safety concerns, the forum also marked the 30th anniversary of the deadliest aviation accident in history, in which two jumbo jets collided on a runway in the Canary Islands, killing 593 people.
Retired Capt. Robert Bragg, the co-pilot of one of the planes involved in the crash, relived the accident in detail, highlighting the consequences of human error in aviation.
"Anyone, no matter how qualified, can make serious mistakes," Bragg concluded.
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