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Safe flying involves more than planes

On countless occasions I've had conversations with friends who are about to take a vacation or business flight and heard them say they selected a particular airline because of its safety record. Never have I heard any of them discuss the positives or the negatives of the airports from which they will be departing or landing. Perhaps it's just as well, or they might decide that it's a factor that has to be considered when deciding what airline to fly.

A 2000 survey of 1,024 commercial airports in the U.S. revealed that 45 percent failed to meet safety standards. Recently an updated survey showed that the number has been upgraded as improvements have been put in place, and now only 39 percent of the 500 largest airports lack adequate runway safety areas. Unfortunately, there's no convenient place to determine which are considered safe and those that pose a safety risk.

The Federal Aviation Administration considers 1,000 feet the minimum margin for a safety zone at the end of an airport runway. It's a safety factor rarely, if ever, considered by would be passengers. For example, my wife and I generally prefer to fly to John Wayne Airport in California when going to visit our son. Now we learn that it has a safety zone far short of the 1,000 feet but that Los Angeles Airport has a much more satisfactory safety zone, and although it's a much busier facility, it does provide some more safeguards to planes that are landing there.

The safety zone comes into play primarily during foul weather when runway conditions deteriorate. And it comes to public attention when a jet slides off the runway, as occurred at Midway Airport in Chicago recently. A Southwest Airline 737 slid off the runway during its landing approach and smashed through the airport fence, coming to rest on a busy road adjacent to the airport. It slid into two cars and resulted in the death of a 6-year-old boy sitting in back of one of the cars and injuries to 13 others. The Midway safety zone is only 82 feet, considerably shorter than the 1,000 feet recommended by the FAA.

There are airports in the nation that are considering extensions of a safety zone but are unable to do so because of nearby streets and neighborhoods. Nobody has come up with an answer about what to do in those facilities. Should the big jets be forbidden to land at those facilities? At a minimum, the Canadian system should be adopted that measures winds and ground contamination and can inform pilots how effectively their brakes are likely to perform on specific areas of a runway. The pilot then has more reliable information on which to determine if he should try to land or abort.

Under existing regulations, airports are not required to retrofit existing runways, but the FAA has been urging airports that cannot extend their safety zones to install material that can quickly stop jets if they skid off the end of a runway. The FAA considers it an acceptable alternative to a runway overrun. It can stop a jet traveling 70 miles an hour. The FAA has factual evidence to reinforce its claims that the material is effective in stopping skidding jets.

Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating whether the jet at Midway had ground speed of more than 150 miles an hour and whether it landed farther down the runway than normal. Additionally, it is checking why the crew of the jet reportedly turned off the plane's automatic braking system, utilized by many pilots on slippery landing strips.

As you can see, an airline's safety record is dependent on more than its aircraft and/or its pilots. Other factors come into play, and would-be passengers should consider them.

Murray B. Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News.

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