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America's safest airports

When it comes to accidents on the runway, airplane safety is at an all-time high. Last year's accident rate was 0.61 percent — one crash for every 1.6 million flights.
Image: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport had just 19 runway incidents from 2006 to 2010. The airport's main north-south runway is being renovated, which includes resurfacing and new runway lighting systems.Courtesy of Washington Reagan Airport
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It's official: flying is safer than ever.

Sure, you may still encounter air rage and sleepy controllers, but when it comes to accidents on the runway, airplane safety is at an all-time high. Last year’s accident rate was extremely low — one crash for every 1.6 million flights.

Of course, some airports have a better track record than others. So to find the gold-star winners, analyzed the Federal Aviation Administration's latest Runway Safety Report and more recent statistics supplied by the FAA, and created a formula (see our methodology below) to determine which of the 35 busiest commercial airports in the United States had the fewest and least severe runway incidents from 2006 to 2010. The 15 that made our list of America's safest airports racked up a grand total of zero life-threatening incidents. Some have never had a serious incident or aircraft-related fatality.

Chalk those numbers up to improvements the FAA has made over the years. In 2000, U.S. airports recorded 67 serious runway incursions that could have easily led to injuries or fatalities. According to FAA spokesperson Tammy Jones, the total dropped to only six last year, while the number of serious incidents specifically involving commercial aircraft plummeted from 34 a decade ago to three in 2010.

Since launching a call to action on runway safety in 2007, the FAA has put in place a number of new programs and technologies. These include pilot seminars and air traffic controller refresher courses, new Runway Status Lights technology, airport surface detection equipment, and the identification of "hot spots," where the risk of collision is higher.

Even so, several major U.S. airports continue to grapple with safety issues, and several medium-size airports still have downright shameful records.

So where will you find America's safest airports? The Midwest comprises a third of the list, despite its reputation for severe weather, while only three Sun Belt airports are represented. One explanation is the higher volume of private planes in sunny climates. According to Wes Timmons, the FAA's recently retired director of runway safety, the majority of runway incursions are caused by pilots of private planes who ignore air traffic control instructions.

Noticeably absent from our list are most of the nation's biggest airports. Only three of them (Houston, Detroit and Minneapolis) are among the 15 busiest in terms of total aircraft operations.

"Some of the larger airports were designed well before I was born, and with the explosion of air traffic over the past 50 years, they have struggled to keep up," says Steve Jangelis, chairman of the Airport and Ground Environment Committee for the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents more than 6,000 pilots of 40 airlines in the U.S. and Canada. Still, he says, "airports understand there is an issue, and we are seeing progress as these airports mitigate the risk."

To calculate an airport's safety score, we used information from the FAA's Runway Safety Report and individual runway safety data supplied by the FAA. We started with the Runway Incident Rate — the total number of runway incidents divided by the total number of runway operations (takeoffs and landings), then averaged the rate for the five years covered in our survey period. We then looked at serious (Category A and B) runway incidents in which there was a strong or good possibility of a crash or human casualties. We assigned values to these incidents: 1 for "A" and 0.5 for "B." We added these Category A/B incident scores to the overall incident rate per year to achieve an overall score and ranking.

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