updated 9/25/2008 5:36:09 PM ET 2008-09-25T21:36:09

The rate of close calls on airport runways is up over last year and the risk of a collision is high, a government investigator said Thursday.

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Gerald Dillingham, the Government Accountability Office's top expert on aviation safety, told a House panel that even though the Federal Aviation Administration "has given a higher priority to runway safety" there were 24 of the most serious kinds of runway incursions — defined as an event in which any aircraft, vehicle or person intrudes in space reserved for takeoff or landing — in fiscal 2008.

That's the same number of serious runway incursions as last year. But since air traffic operations have declined this year, the rate of serious incidents — measured by number of incidents per 1 million takeoffs and landings — increased 5 percent in the first three quarters of fiscal 2008, Dillingham told an aviation subcommittee of the House transportation committee.

The rate of all types of runway incursions — ranging from near collisions to minor incidents in which there was no threat to safety — was 6.72 in the first three quarters of 2008, up 10 percent compared to the same three quarters in 2007 and 2001, when the rate was at its previous peak of 6.11, Dillingham said.

"We all agree ... that FAA has given a higher priority to runway safety," including following several GAO recommendations, Dillingham said. "Despite these actions, the risk of runway collisions is still high."

FAA Chief Operating Officer Hank Krakowski said the agency has made "solid progress" this year. He noted that the 24 serious incidents in 2007 were down from a high of 53 incidents in 2001.

Runway incursions are a top safety concern internationally and among U.S. air safety officials. The deadliest disaster in commercial aviation history was a runway incursion in 1977, when 582 were killed in the ground collision of two Boeing 747s operated by Pan American and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines at the Tenerife airport in the Canary Islands.

Since 1990, 112 people have died in seven U.S. runway incursions, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Among the initiatives FAA is taking to boost runway safety:

  • Installation of electronic mapping equipment in the cockpits of 80 airliners, belonging to four airlines, that will provide the position of the aircraft while on the ground.
  • Installation of runway status lights over the next three years at 21 airports to signal pilots when a runway is safe to enter or cross.

In the long term, FAA plans for a satellite-based map system on all commercial airliners that will show pilots the location of their aircraft in the air and on the ground, as well as the positions of other planes.

In December, GAO warned that air travelers face a high risk of a catastrophic collision on U.S. airport runways because of faltering federal leadership, malfunctioning technology and overworked air traffic controllers.

Dillingham and Krakowski agreed that mistakes by pilots and controllers rather than technology problems were key factors in many incursions.

The most recent serious runway incursion occurred last week at Lehigh Valley International Airport in Allentown, Pa. A United Express flight with 60 passengers had to brake and swerve at 140 mph to avoid by about 10 feet a small plane on the same runway. The flight crew of the Chicago-bound regional jet spotted the Cessna four-seat propeller plane just ahead of it and aborted takeoff. The Cessna had just landed on the same runway, but missed its exit.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association said a controller training to work in the Allentown airport's tower mistakenly thought the Cessna had left the runway and cleared the United Express flight for takeoff. The association's president, Patrick Forrey, complained that the FAA doesn't have enough controllers to adequately staff some facilities.

FAA officials said the Allentown tower had the number of controllers required by regulations.

NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker told The Associated Press he applauds the steps the FAA has taken to reduce runway accidents but worries they may not be enough to head off a disaster.

"The runway incursion issue is the thing that keeps me up at night," Rosenker said. "We have been very close in recent years to seeing a terrible collision."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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