Pressure from politicians and the public to reduce air traffic delays could unwittingly compromise safety by increasing chances of runway collisions, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board warned on Friday.
"I think there is a tremendous stress, a tremendous pressure being exerted on the FAA and the industry by Congress," said Carol Carmody, acting chair of the federal watchdog agency. She added that the push to reduce delays has the potential to erode safety.
Incidents in which planes or vehicles trespass on a runway being used for a takeoff or landing are considered the leading hazard in U.S. aviation, and they are on the rise despite efforts by the Federal Aviation Administration, airlines and airport operators to contain them. There were 429 such "runway incursions" last year, a 34 percent increase from 1999.
According to the NTSB, an unpublished FAA analysis shows that nearly 50 of the runway incidents last year involved "a significant potential" for a collision and in another group of 15 incidents the risk was so high that "the participants barely avoid(ed) a collision."
The NTSB recommended last June that the FAA require pilots to stop at every runway intersection. Currently, pilots get clearance to taxi to their destinations on the airport surface and may cross any runways in between. But the FAA has not acted on the safety board's proposal.
"Obviously, the problem with those (recommendations) is that they might slow down traffic," Carmody said during a session with reporters.
In testimony at a congressional hearing on Thursday, FAA Administrator Jane Garvey vowed not to let the problem of delays undermine safety.
Some lawmakers have warned of harsh consequences if delays continue to get worse. Delays "are nothing short of horrendous and they have got to stop," Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the transportation subcommittee, told FAA, airline and airport witnesses at the hearing. "If you can't do the job, we'll find someone who will." Funding, he said, "will go to places where solutions exist."
But GOP Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Largo, chairman of the full committee and an air crash survivor, said: "I would not want to solve the problem at the risk of safety." Rogers said his strong language was intended to get the FAA, airlines, airports and air traffic controllers to stop blaming each other for delays and to start working together.
FAA officials have previously said the steep increase in runway safety incidents last year is probably because of greater awareness and better reporting. Indeed, the FAA analysis shows that the sharpest increase was in incidents that the agency classified as having "little or no risk of a collision."
But another safety watchdog has said that while the FAA always has had good runway safety plans, it can never seem to get results. Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead has also expressed disappointment that the FAA is about to lose its fifth runway safety director in five years, this time because of retirement.
Number of airline deaths rises
WASHINGTON _ The number of people killed in airplane accidents last year rose over 1999, the National Transportation Safety Board reported Friday.
The NTSB said 748 people were killed in plane accidents last year, up from 697. In January 2000, 88 people died when Alaska Airlines Flight 261 crashed off the coast of California. Most of the deaths, 592, occurred from accidents involving private planes.
The number of people killed in crashes involving small charter planes rose sharply from 38 to 71.
Overall, the number of airplane accidents declined from 2,053 to 1,975.