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Lighting the way to safety

Logan, with an alarming record of near misses, is first US airport to get tarmac warning system

By David Abel
Globe Staff / October 9, 2010

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Logan International Airport, with its harrowing history of near misses between aircraft on busy runways, has become the nation’s first airport to introduce an elaborate new system of lights and radar designed to prevent such collisions and close calls. The new system, which cost $3.6 million, is expected to be installed at 23 airports nationwide in the next few years, federal aviation and transportation officials said yesterday.

“The goal we are working toward is zero runway incursions,’’ said Randy Babbitt, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, a former pilot who landed a government plane at Logan yesterday to give the new system his approval.

FAA officials demonstrated how the new Runway Status Lights system uses a series of incandescent red lights embedded in the pavement to warn pilots when it’s unsafe to enter, cross, or proceed down a runway. The new system uses data from ground-based radar, transponders aboard airplanes, and other sensors to issue direct warnings to pilots about potential incursions or collisions.

The system, which was tested for the last three months before it went into full operation Tuesday, uses three types of lights: those that illuminate if it’s unsafe to enter a runway; those that illuminate when it’s unsafe to take off; and those that illuminate if it’s unsafe to cross through a runway intersection. The only color is red.

The FAA paid $1 million to design and develop the system and the equipment; the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan, paid $2.6 million for the construction, which took about a year and a half.

A federal study released in 2007 ranked Logan as fourth in the nation in so-called runway incursions, the close calls involving planes that nearly collide or take wrong turns on the tarmac.

Logan has had 117 incursions since 2000, 11 so far this year, according to the FAA. The most recent occurred Sept. 22, when the pilot of an Airbus A319 made a wrong turn and proceeded on a closed taxiway, despite directions he received from the control tower.

In the 2007 report, the Government Accountability Office counted 30 near-collisions — the most dangerous type of runway incursion — at Logan between fiscal 2001 and fiscal 2006, including several incidents that the FAA designated as serious, “where collisions were narrowly or barely avoided.’’

In the report, Boston ranked behind Los Angeles International Airport, Chicago’s O’Hare, and Philadelphia International Airport in what investigators then said was a growing rate of near-collisions that they attributed to overworked controllers, increased air traffic, and waning safety efforts by the FAA.

But federal transportation officials yesterday said the number of near-collisions on runways nationwide dropped by half in the past 12 months. There were six cases in fiscal 2010 involving a plane nearly colliding with another aircraft, compared with 12 incursions in fiscal 2009 — a drop from 67 cases reported in 2000.

The latest most serious near-collision at Logan occurred in 2005 when an Aer Lingus Airbus and a similarly sized US Airways jet took off about the same time from different runways, missing each other by about 300 feet, said MassPort officials.

Last year, in what airport officials deemed a less serious but similarly troubling event, the driver of a construction vehicle crossed a runway and came within seconds of colliding with a US Airways flight with 91 people aboard.

“We continue to make terrific progress in the area of runway safety and the credit should go to the entire aviation community,’’ US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement, which noted that signage and training has improved in recent years at the nation’s airports. “I’m thrilled that we’ve further reduced serious incursions, and I look forward to additional improvements.’’

At Logan, Babbitt said Boston was chosen as the first airport to use the system because the FAA wanted to see how it worked in a city with high traffic and bad weather. Logan has on average about 1,000 flights that take off and land every day. Versions of the system are still undergoing tests at airports in Dallas, San Diego, and Los Angeles.

“This is the culmination of technology we’ve been working on for a long time,’’ Babbitt said. “This system takes the human out of the loop and helps prevent mistakes that might be caused by a distraction — and it’s simple. Pilots have to stop when they see a red light.’’

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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