When the possibility of airline disasters is considered, a variety of scenarios comes to mind. Midair collisions. Engine failure at 30,000 feet. Running off the end of the runway.
The thought of collisions on the runway aren’t often included on that list. And a report released last week by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, suggests that the leadership at the Federal Aviation Administration isn’t focused enough on that part of the air safety equation, either.
But first, the good news. The GAO acknowledges that the FAA has successfully reduced the number of near-collisions on runways after they peaked in 2001. Even so, the GAO says, the FAA’s efforts to maintain those reductions has “subsequently waned.” The 31 near-collisions reported in 2006 and the 24 this year still pose what the GAO called “a high risk of catastrophic runway collision,” placing U.S. travelers at significant risk.
Some of the reasons cited by the report have been heard before. Air traffic control technology updates are moving too slowly at most of the nation’s airports, and air traffic controllers are working too many hours, which can lead to fatigue among those who monitor runway traffic. But another contributing factor, the GAO says, is that “no single office is taking charge” of the effort to address runway safety problems. The FAA’s Office of Runway Safety operated without a permanent director for two years, has cut its staff by almost half in the past four years. The last national runway safety plan was created in 2002.
Congressional leaders have warned that the FAA should not be ignoring these red flags and should take action to update its runway safety plan and safety data, in addition to the pilot training and runway markings projects already under way.
At a time of the year when airlines are busiest, carrying people to various locations for the holidays, travelers can still fly without undue alarm. Statistically, airliners are an incredibly safe mode of transportation. The odds are definitely in the travelers’ favor. This report, and the steps it outlines, should help keep things that way.