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NEEDLESS CRASHES ON RUNWAYS U.S. AIR TRAVEL CAN BE SAFER, AND IT SHOULD BE

THE CRASH of two airliners on a Detroit runway this month brought new attention to two important air safety goals -- preventing runway crashes and reducing fire hazards when they do occur.

Eight people died when an airliner got onto the wrong runway, was hit by an airliner that was taking off and was quickly engulfed in flames. Fortunately accidents like this are rare, but it is unconscionable that there are hundreds of close calls every year at U.S. airports when pilots lose their way or are misdirected on runways.

A recent national study of the type of incident in which a plane taxies onto a runway being used by another plane showed an increase in the past few years. Logan Airport in Boston had the worst record, with 7.9 incidents for every 100,000 takeoffs and landings.

With millions of takeoffs and landings each year, the possibility for tragedy is obvious. And there is no excuse for a single airliner to be on the wrong runway because of missing or unlighted markers or unclear instructions from traffic controllers -- lapses pilots have often complained about.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued a report last April urging that runway signs be standardized, an obvious step. The agency should follow through to ensure that signs and procedures for takeoff and landing are designed to reduce chances for human error.

Another area for improvement is the design of fuel tanks. The fire in the Detroit crash broke out when an engine was torn off one of the airliners. This hazard could be reduced by the use of stronger fuel tanks and fuel lines and by devices that seal themselves when an engine breaks away.

The FAA, in response to a request by Congress, is studying the feasibility of requiring safer fuel tanks. Since they are already being used on military aircraft, there seems little doubt that they would help. And if they are good enough for the military, why not for civilian aircraft?

On another major air-safety problem, the FAA is now acting with alacrity. Sudden wind shifts, known as "wind shear," are a deadly hazard, especially on takeoffs and landings. The last crash attributed to wind shear was at Dallas-Fort Worth in 1985, when 134 persons were killed.

Since then, the hazards have been reduced through heightened pilot awareness and new instruments. Now the FAA is stepping up the testing of an advanced on-board device that can detect wind shear five miles ahead of the plane. It could replace a less sophisticated device that provides a warning only when the plane has begun to penetrate the wind shear.

Generally, the FAA does a good job in making the skies safe for travelers, but with air travel increasing and the possibility for human error always present, there are still some improvements to be made.

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