SFO to test runway safety system

October 30, 2008 7:25:25 AM PDT
San Francisco International Airport is about to become the only airport in Northern California to help test a new high-tech safety system. It's meant to reduce dangerous runway collisions.

There are two reasons SFO was tapped as a test site -- it's one of the nation's busiest commercial airports and it has intersecting runways. SFO has had its share of close calls on the runway -- there were 11 incidents in the airport's fiscal year ending September 30th and four last year, including a more serious one where two planes came within 50-feet of hitting each other.

The Federal Aviation Administration selected San Francisco International Airport as one of 21 nationally to test out an experimental safety program. SFO is on the federal list of risky airports for near-collisions on runways and was chosen because it's one of the busiest commercial ones and has intersecting runways.

The FAA is providing up to $5 million for the new technology, which includes cockpit systems with moving map displays and audio alert systems that let pilots know their exact position on the airfield, and the location of other planes and service vehicles.

Seven airlines are participating in the voluntary program, including Southwest and U.S. Airways. The FAA hopes this new technology will help prevent tragic accidents like the deadly Comair crash in Lexington, Kentucky in August 2006; 49 people died when the plane crashed shortly after take off from the wrong runway. Reports showed that the pilots never received four important airport advisories, including one that indicated an alternate route because the normal taxiway to the main runway was closed that day. Flight data recordings indicated the pilots thought they were taking off from the main runway.

The new onboard tracking devices are expected to be installed and used by the participating airlines beginning next May. In exchange for the federal funding for this equipment, the airlines have agreed to provide the FAA with operational data and pilot observations to help measure how well the new technology works.


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