Runway Close Calls No. 1 Air Travel Threat

cordes animation planes

At a meeting in Washington today the National Transportation Safety Board said runway incursions are the greatest threat to aviation safety today.

There were 24 close calls at U.S. airports in 2007 that were serious enough to merit investigation by the NTSB. And 31 the year before that.

The agency says the fact that none of those incidents resulted in a crash is simply a matter of luck. And that if changes aren't made, eventually that luck could run out, CBS News transportation and consumer safety correspondent Nancy Cordes reports.

You can hear the panic in the controller's voice in a new animation of a close call in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in July.

He says: "Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop!"

The video animations were released today by the NTSB.

"Three hundred and seven people dodged a bullet that day by 230 feet," said NTSB board member Steven Chealander.

With busy controllers trying to keep track of more planes than ever before, the NTSB warned today that conditions are ripe for a runway accident.

It says the FAA isn't moving fast enough to put a system in place that would automatically alert pilots when they're on a collision course.

"It is time to do something before we have to investigate an accident that is catastrophic and explain to the families that technologies are out there to begin to prevent this thing from happening," NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker said.

CBS News got a first-hand look at that technology, on a demonstration flight above the main airport in Syracuse, N.Y.

The pilot alerted Cordes when they were about two miles from the end of the runway.

As they came in for a landing, another demo plane strayed onto the runway. Radar detects the conflict, and a voice alert is sent to the plane. It said: "Runway occupied!"

And the one on the ground: "Converging traffic! Converging traffic!"

We abort the landing and go around.

How much time does it save?

"I would say at minimum five to 10 seconds and it could be as long as 30 seconds or more," the pilot told Cordes.

Thirty seconds would have given the pilots in a near-miss in San Francisco shown on NTSB simulation video more breathing room. A Republic Airlines plane had to take off in a hurry to avoid a SkyWest jet that had been accidentally cleared to land.

Honeywell and Sensis Corporation, which developed the system, says it will take at least three years to implement.

This fall, the FAA began making quicker fixes - better runway markings at more than 200 airports.

"We've talked to the airlines on how they train their pilots, we've talked to our our air traffic controllers on how they operate their position," said the FAA's chief operating officer, Hank Krakowski. "We basically took a top-to-bottom look at everything we do around an airport."

Still, the NTSB isn't satisfied. It points out the deadliest accident in aviation history was a runway incursion, 30 years ago in Tenerife, Spain. Two 747s collided, killing nearly 600 people.

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    Nancy Cordes is CBS News' chief White House correspondent.