Airline passenger planes are being reported on the same runway with other planes and vehicles hundreds of times more each year, the Transportation Department's inspector general warned. Above, a Continental Airlines jet rolls out to the runway at Liberty International Airport in Newark, N.J., in a file photo. (Karen Bleier / AFP)
Airline passenger planes are being reported on the same runway with other planes and vehicles — and sometimes narrowly avoiding collisions — hundreds of times more each year, the Transportation Department’s inspector general warned Thursday.
The number of serious airport runway incidents, when a collision is barely avoided, rose in the past year, Inspector General Calvin Scovel told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on transportation.
Scovel said the number of serious incidents grew to 18 in fiscal 2012 after a steep decline since 2007, when the Federal Aviation Administration focused efforts on reducing them. The 31 serious incidents reported in fiscal 2006 dropped to six in fiscal 2010.
At the same time, Scovel said, runway incursions, which had been hovering for three years around the 954 reported in fiscal 2011, jumped to 1,150 last year.
Planes aren’t ever supposed to be on the same runway as another plane or vehicle. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, called the rising numbers an “alarming increase.”
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told the subcommittee the agency takes the incidents “very, very seriously” and is working to reduce the growing number of incidents by improving training, signs and equipment.
But he said the 1,150 incidents last year resulted from better reporting by people and electronics, and “the total number is very, very small.”
Scovel said he thought the agency wasn’t emphasizing some of the safety measures in the same fashion it had back when it focused on incursions in 2007.
“We believe that the agency’s attention has drifted off some of those safety measures after the initial success of that 2007 call to action,” he said. “We encourage the agency to persist.”
Air traffic controllers, who also guide planes on the ground, are encouraged to report mistakes without fear of retaliation under the Air Traffic Safety Action Program.
In addition, FAA deployed equipment worth $550 million at 35 large airports in 2011 that provides more detailed information about where planes are on runways and taxiways.
The equipment is so precise, Huerta said, that it captures incidents in which a vehicle crossed a line that might have been missed by the human eye.
“The key thing it’s important to point out is that we take every one of these incidents very seriously,” Huerta said.
Bart Jansen reports for USA Today.