May 11: Reducing The Risk On The Runway

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Part two of a CBS News investigation deals with a danger you face when you travel by plane, one you probably never think about, a danger not in the air but on the runway, where a simple mistake can have catastrophic results.

CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr shows you what is, and is not, being done to reduce the risk on the runway.

It's that shared moment of relief when the plane lands, the touchdown when most airline passengers relax, satisfied that their trip has ended safely.

But, the fact is runways may present the greatest risk to any flight.

Once a day somewhere in America, a plane, a fuel truck, or some other vehicle crosses the path of an airplane either taking off or landing. The FAA labels these conflicts "runway incursions." John Purvis, who spent 17 years investigating crashes for Boeing, calls them something else.

"Every time you have a runway incursion, you've got the potential of an accident waiting to happen," says Purvis, retired Boeing accident investigator.

Close Calls
Read Part I of Bob Orr's’s investigation.
And when they do happen the results are often deadly.

Over the past decade, 63 people have been killed in runway crashes in the United States. More than half of them were killed in a 1991 collision of two planes at Los Angeles International Airport.

The FAA has made a promise.

"Our goal is to eliminate runway incursions and improve the safety operations on the surface of an airport," John Mayrhofer, FAA.

But, regulators are years behind.

The FAA has spent $90 million over the past ten years to get working a radar-based warning system called AMASS.

In a demonstration in Atlanta, AMASS alerts a controller that a plane has strayed onto the runway in front of a landing jet.

"At that point the controller would immediately issue an instruction to this aircraft to go around so that he wouldn't land on an occupied runway," says John Hughes, AMASS technician.

The FAA hopes to phase in AMASS later this summer. But, it will be another two years before the warning system is fully operational at the nation's 34 largest airports.

One safety solution pioneered in Seattle has already shown great promise in reducing the risk of runway collisions. It's a high-tech system built around a very low-tech idea -- soplights.

In low visibility pilots waiting to take off see a series of red lights in the pavement. The stoplights mean that another plane is either still on the runway or about to land.

Once the way is clear, a string of green lights leads the plane safely onto the runway.

"Regardless of what language you speak, you know that red means stop. You know that green means okay you can go," says Gina Marie Lindsey, manager of the Seattle-Tacoma airport.

Using this system in low visibility Seattle has recorded no runway incursions. Similar lighting controls are now in place at 20 other airports.

And there is now renewed emphasis on improving pilot/controller communications.

"It's the pilots listening carefully and following the instructions -- stopping at stop lines and not crossing active runways. It's also the tower crews communication clearly and correctly," said Purvis.

But safety experts warn all of that may not be enough. As the number of flights increase so will the risk in a system that still relies too much on luck to prevent a wholesale runway tragedy.