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LaGuardia's runways in spotlight again

A third failed takeoff in less than five years has focused attention on the short runways of La Guardia Airport, where red tape has stalled an effort to widen the safety margin.

The airport, aware it's on pilots' short list of fields they would like to avoid, began planning more than five years ago to add 460 feet of overrun to its main east-west runway, where the latest accident occurred Wednesday evening.

Thirty-five of the 116 people on a Denver-bound Continental MD-80 were injured when the pilot aborted takeoff in snow and the jet ran off the end of the runway and nosed down at a breakwater a few feet from Flushing Bay.

Continental said its pilot braked when he realized he could not reach takeoff speed of 140 knots, or about 161 miles an hour. The plane ran past the end of the snow-slick runway and used up all 100 feet of overrun space.

The Federal Aviation Administration recommends having 1,000 feet of safety margin for planes that overshoot runways.

In the earlier takeoff accidents, two passengers died in September 1989 when the pilot couldn't stop a USAir jet from plunging into the bay, and 27 people were killed in March 1992 when wing ice sent another USAir plane crashing off the runway to burst into flames.

In surveys last year and in 1991, pilots put the 55-year-old La Guardia among the riskiest, because of its 7,000-foot runways _ 10,000 feet is the standard of respectability _ and also the steep takeoffs and approaches required for the sake of people and businesses in the neighborhood.

Washington National and Chicago's Midway also have 7,000-foot runways.

LaGuardia's runway would be expanded by filling in a piece of the bay. After making its own environmental review, the Port Authority that runs the airport got an FAA go-ahead in 1991 to seek permits from a host of city, state and federal agencies. Just two more agencies have to sign off on the plan.

"We'd like to have been able to do it faster, but the delay is something we as a society have imposed on ourselves, and rightly so," said Jerry Fitzgerald of the Port Authority. "It should be hard for us to take a piece of wetland."