News Article - July 15, 2008

By Linda Loyd

Inquirer Staff Writer

Philadelphia International Airport is one of 22 U.S. airports that will get new warning lights that signal pilots on or near the ground when a runway is safe to enter, the Federal Aviation Administration said yesterday. The FAA announced the lighting technology, designed to prevent deadly runway collisions, amid criticism by members of Congress and others over an alarming rate of "runway incursions" at airports. Since 1990, 63 people have died in six U.S. runway collisions, according to government investigators.

   The lights operate like traffic signals and are being tested at Dallas Ft. Worth and San Diego international airports. They will be installed at Philadelphia and 19 more airports over the next three years. The lights are embedded in the pavement along runways. Pilots see red lights if the airport's ground surveillance radar detects another airplane, or a ground vehicle, on or approaching the same runway, the FAA said.

   Pilots may not proceed when they see the red lights. Clearance to cross or enter must then by given by air traffic control. Once the lights go off, the pilot must verify clearance before proceeding, the FAA said. "This is another layer of safety being added to what is already a fairly safe operating environment," said Mark E. Gale, Philadelphia's deputy director of aviation for operations and facilities. "This system will add another series of lights that pilots and vehicles will be able to use to determine whether it is safe to enter the runway or, if they are already on the runway, such as an aircraft waiting to take off, it is clear to take off." Currently, Philadelphia International has runway guard lights, as well as standard airfield signage and ground radar. "This is taking all those tools to the next level," Gale said.

   The FAA has been under fire over the rate of runway incursions - which are defined by the FAA as any time an aircraft, vehicle or person is in a protected part of the runway reserved for takeoffs and landings. Within a week at John F. Kennedy International Airport there were two close calls of planes getting too close to each other. The latest was Friday when a Delta Air Lines plane and a Comair plane came within 600 feet, prompting the FAA to immediately change takeoff and landing procedures at the New York airport.

   FAA Acting Administrator Robert Sturgell said that serious runway incursions last year were at an all-time low, totaling only 24. So far this year, he said there have been 19, four involving commercial aircraft. "I do think we can do better," Sturgell said. "The steps we're announcing today, I think will help us get there."

Source - Philadelphia Inquirer