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Turbulent times for air mishap investigators

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board are looking into incidents involving commercial jetliners at U.S. airports across the country in recent days.
/ Source: news services

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board are looking into three incidents involving commercial jetliners at U.S. airports in recent days, including two cases when aircraft used the wrong runway, officials said Wednesday.

The agency said two of the incidents occurred at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, the third at Seattle-Tacoma airport. One resulted in a slight accident in which no one was hurt. Two incidents involved Continental Airlines aircraft.

Although runway mishaps occur hundreds of times a year without major accidents, two big jets using incorrect runways over such a short period is considered unusual.

The first incident prompting this week's safety board review occurred on Saturday at Newark when Continental Flight 1883, a Boeing 757, landed on a taxiway instead of the parallel runway it was assigned to use after a flight from Orlando.

On Monday, Alaska Airlines Flight 61 took off from Runway 34 Right instead of Runway 34 Center at Sea-Tac. The Boeing 737 completed its flight to Juneau, Alaska, without further incident.

Incidents at Newark, Florida
At the Newark airport, two incidents happened in the span of a week.

On Tuesday night, the left wingtip of a Lufthansa jumbo jet taxiing to the runway bumped the right wingtip of a Continental 757 that was being towed, said Alan Hicks, spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

There were 313 people aboard Lufthansa Flight 403 bound for Frankfurt and no injuries reported, said Lufthansa AG spokeswoman Jennifer Urbaniak. The 747's wing was slightly damaged. Passengers were rebooked on other flights, Urbaniak said.

There were no passengers on the Continental plane. The aircraft was being towed to a parking spot, but it was stationary at the time, said Continental spokeswoman Mary Clark.

There was no immediate report on the extent of damage to either aircraft.

Three days earlier, a Continental flight from Florida carrying more than 160 passengers had landed on a narrow taxiway close to airport buildings rather than the runway where it was expected to land. No one was injured. Continental said both pilots were grounded.

Other ground collisions
The NTSB is investigating the taxiway landing, said Northeast region duty officer Todd Gunther. If Tuesday's ground collision caused substantial damage, the board may also investigate that incident, he said. The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the collision, spokesman Jim Peters said.

There have been at least two other ground collisions in the last 20 months at Newark, according to NTSB records.

In March 2005, a Boeing 737 struck a parked Gulfstream as it taxied out of a ramp area, causing significant damage to the smaller aircraft. Five months later, a taxiing Continental Boeing 737 struck two parked Embraer 145 planes as they waited to take off, causing significant damage to one of the smaller planes.

Spilled fuel in Florida
In Florida, a charter jet skidded to a stop on its belly Wednesday after its landing gear failed to extend upon arrival, causing the aircraft to spill fuel on the runway at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, officials said.

No one was injured among the 10 passengers and two crew members aboard the British Aerospace HS-125-700 arriving from Mexico City, federal and airport officials said.

The jet scraped along the main runway at about 2:30 a.m., and the spilled fuel damaged asphalt along it, airport spokesman Greg Meyer said.

Sparks and smoke were seen after the landing, but there was never a fire, said Jeff Kennedy, NTSB southeast regional director.

Meyer said the airport wasn't told that the jet had landing gear problems before it arrived.

The plane was removed from the runway, which was scheduled to be closed while the damage was repaired. An alternate runway was being used in the meantime, airport spokesman Steve Belleme said.

Lexington runway reopens
And the agency is still investigating the Aug. 27 crash of a Comair regional jet in Lexington, Ky., that killed 49 passengers and crew. One person survived. That plane attempted its predawn takeoff from the wrong runway, one that was shorter than the runway it was cleared to use. Comair is a unit of Delta Air Lines.

The runway reopened Wednesday morning for daytime use by smaller aircraft under 12,500 pounds. It had been closed since the Aug. 27 crash.

Comair 5191 crashed after it mistakenly turned onto the smaller runway at the airport, which is too short for commercial planes. The plane was supposed to use a 7,000-foot main runway.

Immediately after the crash, some officials, including Gov. Ernie Fletcher, said the shorter runway should be closed permanently.

Airport officials and others said it is vital to general aviation traffic. Airport plans call for eventually moving the shorter runway slightly and lengthening it to 5,000 feet.