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March 14: Close Calls On Airport Runways Daily

Air travellers may face their greatest risk not in the sky, but on the ground.

Runway accidents, like the one that killed four people last week in Sarasota, Fla., have caused 63 deaths over the last decade.

But, CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr reports, these fatalities are only a small part of the story.

Near accidents, called "runway incursions," happen at the alarming rate of one a day. Planes, fuel trucks and even people sometimes stray right in front of planes trying to land or take off.

Since 1993 the number of runway incursions in the U.S. has jumped by 75 percent, and critics say only one in three is even reported.

Some, like an incident last December in Providence, are particularly chilling. After a United Airlines 757 jet landed in fog, the crew got lost and stopped on the runway.

The captain warned the air traffic controller, "Ma'am, I'm trying to advise you we're on an active runway."

The controller, who could not see the plane or the runway, either ignored, misunderstood or did not hear the warning and cleared a USAirways Metrojet to take off with the United plane still in its path. The Metrojet captain refused, saying, "We're staying clear of all runways until we figure this out."

The controller responded: "Everybody standby please. Radio silence until I talk to you. Everybody standby. USAir 10-20 hold your position please, I don't know where the United is. I will figure it out in a minute."

Help is on the way, but it's late and millions over budget. The FAA's long-promised ground radar warning system, which will be tested this summer, won't be working at the nation's busiest airports for at least two more years.

For now, the FAAand the industry have launched a low-tech approach. It involves more training for pilots and controllers. For small plane pilots, free airport diagram maps are now on-line.

After a dramatic surge in the '90s, runway incursions seem to be leveling off.

Orr reports that with more planes and passengers taking to the air each day it's not a risk that will just go away.

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