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Benjamin Spillman

Lights to aid airport safety

17 July 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Safety systems referred to as "stoplights for pilots" are set for deployment at 20 of the nation's airports, including McCarran International, where close calls known as "runway incursions" are up three-fold since 2000.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced on Monday it would install lights within three years that will alert pilots when it is safe to cross or enter a runway.

The announcement comes as the agency is seeking to upgrade existing ground radar systems at airports nationwide to make it easier for controllers and pilots to avoid collisions on the ground.

The number of serious runway incursions is down 55 percent nationally since 2001, and the FAA says it wants to continue that trend.

At McCarran, the nation's seventh-busiest airport in passenger count, there were six incursions in 2007, roughly one for every 100,000 airfield operations, according to the FAA. In 2000 there were just two. Since 2000, there was only one "serious" runway incursion in Las Vegas. It happened in 2001.

The new lights, called runway status lights, should decrease the number of incursions by flashing red when it is unsafe to enter or cross a runway and glowing green when the coast is clear.

"We've been testing runway status lights for a number of years," said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor. "These systems really do a good job. They are like stoplights for pilots."

There is no price yet for the program. Gregor said a series of lights installed on one runway and seven taxiways at Los Angeles International Airport cost taxpayers about $6 million.

The cost to install lights at McCarran won't be known until the project is bid and the parameters set.

Clark County Department of Aviation officials have identified 40 sites where the lights could be helpful.

Runway incursions are one of several problems occurring on airfields nationally and in Las Vegas.

Others include a long-running dispute between air traffic controllers and the federal government over staffing levels and the potential for safety lapses. Controllers say the ratio of trainees to fully certified workers is too high and is putting a strain on the work force.

They also say conditions of a federally imposed labor contract are driving experienced controllers from the business, exacerbating the problem.

According to controllers, six-day work weeks, undermanned control stations and low morale threaten to undermine safety.

The FAA says it is working to bring in 17,000 new controllers by 2017 and disputes claims that there is a correlation between staffing levels and diminished safety.

Air safety statistics can also be contradictory. For example, the number of runway incursions nationally through the first nine months of the current budget year was 293, more than the 275 total incursions last year.

But of those incursions, only 19 were serious and just four involved commercial aircraft, Gregor said.

Although serious incursions are rare, there is still reason for concern. According to a report from The Associated Press, runway collisions have been responsible for 63 deaths since 1990.

The report also cited near-disasters that included an Aug. 16 incident in Los Angeles in which two commercial jets carrying 296 passengers came within 37 feet of each other, a Delta Boeing 757 that had to take off immediately after touching down in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to avoid hitting a United Airbus 320, and an incident July 5 at LaGuardia Airport in New York in which a commuter jet was allowed to cross a runway as a Delta Boeing 737 was landing.

McCarran spokesman Chris Jones said installation of the lights could coincide with upgrades for the ground radar system. Improved technology would help controllers better identify and differentiate aircraft and other objects on the ground at McCarran.

And the work could be done with little interruption to air traffic.

"We will schedule installation at night or early morning to avoid disruptions as much as possible, or we could close portions of a runway as needed while this work is occurring," Jones said. "It's premature to say exactly what the schedule and plan will be, however."