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Location: Massachusetts, United States

Thursday, October 06, 2005


Or without the Boston accent: incursions. Runway incursions to be more precise.
Boston's Logan Airport has had 16 of them since October of last year, a number that has many around these parts increasingly worried about safety.
The latest took place on Tuesday morning around 0815 when an American Eagle ERJ-135 landed and was told to cross 4L, hold short of 15R and remain on the tower frequency. The pilot read back only part of the instructions, omitting the crucial hold short order. He then switched to ground and received taxi instructions that included crossing 15R.
The American Airlines MD-82 at the approach end of the runway would hold, ground assured the crew. The tower controller, however, expecting the ERJ would hold short as instructed, had already cleared the mad dog for take off and sure enough that crew had begun its roll.
Seeing the RJ about to cross 15R, the controller tried to contact the crew with no luck since they had already switched frequencies. He immediately cancelled AA's take-off clearance and the pilots of the MD-82 aborted their departure.
The aircraft, according to the FAA, came within 1,700 ft of each other. Yet, the Boston Globe (whose story contained a couple of minor mistakes) quotes someone familiar with the investigation saying they in fact were less than 1,000 ft apart.
First of all, kudos to the tower controller for promptly reacting and avoiding a collision.
While it might be a little early to assigne blame, the FAA said it was looking at both operational errors (the ground controller clearing the American Eagle flight across 15R) and pilot deviation (the RJ's crew failing to remain on with tower as instructed).
The alarming number of runway incursions boggles the mind. In August, the FAA and MassPort, which operates Logan, called a last-minute press conference following a couple of close calls. The local administrator attempted to reassure people about safety at Logan and said measures to reduce incursions were being evaluated. Those included a so-called runway status lighting system, much akin to traffic lights. The system is apparently being test at DFW and as I understand it flashes crews green or red lights based on activity picked up by sensors on taxiways and runways.
NTSB has also chimed in, making its own set of recommendations to the FAA. Among them, an NTSB official told me a few weeks ago, would be a ground version of TCAS and possilby a GPS moving map that would indicate all surface traffic. While both sound like great solutions to increase situational awareness, who's going to foot the bill? Not the airlines. Most likely not the FAA.
I wonder what could be done NOW, in the short-run, because in spite of so many incursions over such a short period of time, little progress is visible.
Granted, Logan is one mess of an airport. Don't get me wrong, I think it's a great landmark, I love flying in and out of there and the approaches are very scenic with the Ocean and the skyline nearby. It's also an extremely convenient airport, only 10 minutes to downtown if traffic cooperates.
But take a quick glance at the field's diagram ( and you'll see that it has an amazingly complex layout.
Some taxiways are so short between runways (especially the 4s), a Boston controller told me, that it is extremely easy to exit one and run across the paralel without even knowing it. Last week, a FedEx jet had to abort its take-off when a twin-prop got on the runway.
In August, a FedEx A300 being taxied to the maintenance hangars by a mechanic also crossed an active runway, forcing a Jet Blue flight to abort its take-off.
In a far closer call in June, a US Airways 737 and an Aer Lingus A330 came within 170 feet of each other on take-off. That was blamed on a controller who, I believe, was summarily suspended. It's getting pretty scary and to add to it all, Logan is building a new runway! I hope MassPort and the FAA can work something out because that beautiful airport is getting a really bad name.
Ain't she a beauty?


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