T+L's Most Dangerous U.S. Airports
Around 10 p.m. on a clear summer evening in 2006, United Airlines Flight 1015 was rolling down the runway at Chicago O’Hare, picking up speed, when the pilots saw something heart-stopping: an Atlas Air 747 cargo plane moving directly into its path. Unable to abort takeoff, the United pilot made a split-second decision to turn sharply. The planes avoided impact by a mere 120 feet.
Close runway calls like this are more common than travelers realize—or most airports like to admit. Runway incidents at airports are, on average, a daily occurrence in the United States. They range from near collisions to vehicles or people wandering onto a runway without permission.
And some airports simply have a higher number of close calls, based on our analysis. We looked at the Federal Aviation Administration’s latest Runway Safety Report and more recent runway safety statistics supplied by the FAA to determine which of the 35 busiest commercial airports in the United States have had the most near misses and other runway incidents over the past five years (2006–2010).
Rankings were based on both the overall number of runway safety occurrences and their severity, especially “A” and “B” incidents in which an aircraft collision was narrowly avoided or there was significant potential for a collision. (See the full methodology.)
While everything from weather to wildlife can contribute to an incident on the tarmac, “Two-thirds of all runway incursions are caused by pilot deviation,” says Wes Timmons, FAA’s recently retired director of runway safety. In other words, pilots simply ignore instructions from air traffic control. For better or worse, most of these offenders aren’t commercial pilots; of those two-thirds, says Timmons, nearly 80 percent are caused by small private planes. “Places where you have a lot of [pilot] training activity or a large number of flight schools,” says Timmons, “tend to see a larger number of runway incidents.”
The overall number of runway incursions fluctuates from year to year; fortunately, the vast majority are minor incidents where there’s little or no possibility for runway collisions or casualties.
Airports and the FAA are always working to minimize runway incursions. “We’re making significant progress,” says FAA spokesperson Tammy Jones. In 2000, U.S. airports recorded 67 serious runway incursions that could have easily led to injuries or fatalities. According to Jones, the total dropped to 12 serious incidents by 2009, and just six last year. Over that same span, the number of serious incidents involving commercial aircraft plummeted from 34 a decade ago to only 3 in 2010.
Since launching a call to action on runway safety in 2007, the FAA has put a number of new programs and technologies into service in cooperation with airports, airlines, pilots, and other concerned parties. These include conducting pilot seminars and air traffic controller refresher courses, identifying “hot spots” at major airports where the risk of collision is higher, and implementing new technologies like Runway Status Lights and airport surface detection equipment.
In fact, incorporating new airport and runway safety features has “accelerated greatly” in recent years, says Steve Jangelis, chairman of the Airport and Ground Environment Committee for the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which represents more than 53,000 pilots flying for 39 airlines in the U.S. and Canada.
Yet runway incidents still occur. Here are the airports that have seen a higher percentage of them.
We looked at the 35 busiest airports in America over the last five years (2006–2010) and used information from the FAA’s Runway Safety Report and individual runway safety data supplied by the FAA. We averaged the Runway Incident Rate-the total number of runway incidents divided by the total number of runway operations (takeoffs and landings)-over 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 incident rate per year to achieve an overall score and ranking. We’ve listed the 20 airports with the highest scores.
* Category “A” is a serious incident in which a collision was narrowly avoided. Category “B” is an incident in which separation decreases and there is a significant potential for collision, which may result in a time-critical corrective/evasive response to avoid a collision.
No. 1: Chicago O’Hare
Runway Incidents: 75
Close Calls: In 2006, a United Airlines 737 was picking up speed on the runway when the pilot saw an Atlas Air 747 rolling into its path. Quick thinking by the United pilot prevented a collision, but only by 120 feet.
The Fix: A $6.6 billion modernization plan scheduled for completion in 2014 will realign O’Hare’s runways into a much safer configuration.
No. 2: Cleveland Hopkins
Runway Incidents: 45
Close Calls: While landing at Hopkins in February 2007, a Delta Connection commuter flight skidded off a snow-covered runway and smashed through an airport perimeter fence.
The Fix: CLE has completed a major extension of its main runway, a project that also eliminated crossover with a smaller runway and provided pilots and air traffic controllers with a less confusing takeoff and landing environment.
No. 3: Los Angeles International
Runway Incidents: 60
Close Calls: Among the LAX episodes were near misses of arriving and departing planes in both 2006 and 2007.
The Fix: LAX is the venue for what the FAA calls an “ongoing intensive outreach program” to educate pilots, controllers, and vehicle operators on best practices, proper procedures, situational awareness, and other aspects of runway safety.
No. 4: San Francisco International
Runway Incidents: 55
Close Calls: One of the hairier runway incidents of recent years was a near miss in the spring of 2007 at San Francisco International. A Sky West turboprop arriving from Modesto was given permission to land at the same time as a Republic Airlines regional jet was given the green light for takeoff on a crossing runway. Told to hold by the control tower, the Sky West aircraft came to a stop in the intersection of the runways as the Republic plane soared right above. The pilots estimate the aircraft came within 30–50 feet of a collision that could have been catastrophic.
The Fix: With the airport’s crossing runways and so many flights impacted by fog and other weather delays, SFO administrators have long advocated a complete realignment of its runways into a safer configuration. This involves extending the airfield into the bay—a plan vehemently opposed by Bay Area environmentalists and windsurfing enthusiasts.
No. 5: Honolulu International
Runway Incidents: 30
Close Calls: In May 2007, a military cargo plane taxiing after landing nearly strayed into the path of a departing commuter passenger jet.
The Fix: As part of a $2.3 billion project to modernize all of Hawaii’s commercial airports, Honolulu is getting wider taxiways and improved runway lighting.
No. 6: Miami International
Runway Incidents: 47
Close Calls: In August 2006, a US Airways flight blew a tire on landing at Miami and caught fire. Everyone onboard was evacuated safely.
The Fix: Anyone who has flown in or out of Miami lately knows the airport is an ongoing construction zone, the result of a $6.2 billion capital improvement project scheduled for completion in 2011. Safety improvements include new runway lights, aprons, taxiways, and a midfield “hold pad.”
No. 7: Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International
Runway Incidents: 34
Close Calls: A Mexican private jet landed at Fort Lauderdale in November 2006—without its landing gear deployed. The aircraft burst into flames as it skidded down the runway, although none of the 12 occupants was seriously injured.
The Fix: FLL is in the midst of an $800 million improvement project that revolves around the complete reconstruction of the airport’s busy south runway. The project is scheduled for completion in 2014.
No. 8: Phoenix Sky Harbor
Runway Incidents: 19
Close Calls: A departing Southwest Airlines 737 came within 50 feet of an arriving Empire Airways Cessna in March 2010.
The Fix: Working closely with the FAA, Sky Harbor recently completed a number of runway safety improvements including Runway Status Lights, new taxiway connectors, and extended safety buffer zones at the end of runways.
No. 9: Boston Logan
Runway Incidents: 63
Close Calls: In 2005, an Aer Lingus Airbus and US Airways Boeing 737 nearly collided on crossing runways after getting permission from air traffic control to take off. The accident was avoided when the quick-thinking copilot of the US Airways plane pushed his control column forward to slow takeoff.
The Fix: In recent years, Logan has completed construction of a brand-new runway and a central taxiway that helps relieve airfield congestion. The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) gave the airport its 2008 “Airport of the Year” award for its collaborative efforts to improve safety, including enhanced markings and technologies.
No. 10: Dallas/FortWorth
Runway Incidents: 61
Close Calls: During one 30-day period in 2008, the airport racked up 10 near misses.
The Fix: In 2008, Dallas/Fort Worth launched the first phase of a revolutionary perimeter taxiway system that increases runway safety—and decreases the possibility of close encounters—by allowing aircraft to taxi around DFW’s seven active runways rather than crossing them.
No. 11: Chicago Midway
Runway Incidents: 23
Close Calls: While landing on a slippery runway at Midway in December 2005, a Southwest Airlines 737 shot off the end of a runway and into a surface street, where it smashed into a car, killing a six-year-old boy. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation ultimately blamed pilot error, abetted by a lack of the soft concrete Engineered Materials Arresting Systems (EMAS) that would have slowed the plane after leaving the tarmac.
The Fix: Following that accident, Midway decided to fund and construct EMAS at the end of its runways.
No. 12: DenverInternational
Runway Incidents: 15
Close Calls: Strong crosswinds were blamed for a 2008 incident in which a Continental Airlines 737 plunged off a runway into a ravine and caught fire. Thirty-eight people were injured during the crash, several of them seriously.
The Fix: In recent years, DEN has revised its runway and taxiway safety policies, as well as winter snow-management procedures, but strong winds continue to delay flights and pose safety concerns.
No. 13: Charlotte Douglas
Runway Incidents: 35
Close Calls: CLT has been the scene of several serious incidents in recent years including the 2003 crash of a US Airways commuter flight that left 21 passengers and crew dead, as well as a 2009 near miss between two America West aircraft.
The Fix: A new runway that opened last year—the airport’s third parallel runway—and taxiway extensions currently under way at CLT will help separate commercial flights from Air National Guard and corporate aviation activities.
No. 14: PhiladelphiaInternational
Runway Incidents: 50
Close Calls: The FAA alerts pilots to three “hot spot” locations on runways and taxiways at PHL. Over the past two years, there have been 14 runway incursions.
The Fix: The FAA recently improved lighting and signage at PHL to reduce the number of runway incursions.
No. 15: Newark Liberty
Runway Incidents: 32
Close Calls: One of the airport’s more publicized safety incidents in recent years came when a Continental Airlines 757 landed on a taxiway rather than the adjacent runway, an episode that led the FAA to reevaluate air traffic and runway safety procedures at Newark.
The Fix: The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is currently working with Honeywell, Continental Airlines, and the FAA to launch a ground-based augmentation system at EWR that will allow planes to fly closer together and more aircraft to land without compromising safety.
No. 16 Tampa International
Runway Incidents: 17
Close Calls: As at other airports, wildlife occasionally interferes with TPA’s operations. Roaming coyotes are a threat, and airport authorities have had to undertake several roundups over the past decade. While there’s been only one apparent coyote-aircraft collision at Tampa, the FAA counts nearly 300 across the U.S. since 1990, so it’s always a danger.
The Fix: Federal wildlife officials have trapped and removed a number of coyotes from Tampa’s runways and surrounding woods in recent years, and officials have mended animal-size gaps in a six-foot-high fence around the airport.
No. 17 Seattle-Tacoma International
Runway Incidents: 31
Close Calls: Snow and ice on the runway and low visibility at Sea-Tac contributed to a cargo 747 sliding off the end of the runway.
The Fix: Seattle’s airport unveiled a $993 million third runway in 2008. Periods of lower visibility occur 44 percent of the time at Sea-Tac; the new runway allows for greater operating efficiency and has spurred the expansion of the airport safety area.
No. 18 Las Vegas McCarran
Runway Incidents: 51
Close Calls: Two planes operated by Air Canada and America West nearly collided in 2005. According to press reports, it was believed a McCarran air traffic controller gave clearance to the wrong America West jet.
The Fix: McCarran has extended or constructed runways in recent years to accommodate more takeoffs and landings. Runway Status Lights are also part of the airport’s program to improve safety.
No. 19 Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson
Runway Incidents: 82
Close Calls: In 2008, a Delta flight taking off for Puerto Vallarta came within an estimated three seconds of colliding with an Atlantic Southeast regional jet that crossed the runway without air traffic control clearance.
The Fix: Hartsfield-Jackson has been using a $40 million Airport Improvement Program Grant from the FAA to improve runways and taxiways, rehabilitate apron areas, and enhance the runway safety area at the end of the airport’s longest runway.
No. 20 New York JFK
Runway Incidents: 35
Close Calls: In April of 2011, an Air France double-decker A380 collided with a Delta Connection regional jet while the Airbus was taxiing toward its takeoff position. Fortunately, no one was injured.
The Fix: JFK has already installed an ASDE-X system with sophisticated ground radar. The addition of Runway Status Lights—which warn pilots when it is unsafe to cross, enter, or begin takeoff on a runway—should help as well.