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FAA warns of runway problems

Airports, including the local one, lack a standard safety zone of 1,000 feet, according to a federal report.

WASHINGTON — More than half of U.S. commercial airports, including Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International, don’t have a 1,000-foot margin at the end of a runway, an overrun area the federal government says is needed as a safety zone, according to a new report.

Some of the busiest airports in the country — including Los Angeles International Airport, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport — have more than one runway that doesn’t meet safety standards, according to statistics supplied by the Federal Aviation Administration.

At 325 airports — more than half of the 573 commercial airports in the United States — at least one runway lacks the 1,000-foot safety zone, according to the FAA’s own figures. Almost half of all commercial runways — 507 of 1,017 — don’t meet the safety standard.

The full 1,000 feet cannot be added at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport, said director Barry Centini. As an alternative, the airport, with FAA approval, is constructing a safety zone at the approach to the main runway. The Engineered Material Arresting Systems, soft concrete beds at the end of a runway, are designed to slow down an aircraft.

The airport received more than $4 million federal and state grants to build the EMAS and site work should begin soon at the north end of the runway 22 facing Scranton, Centini said.

The FAA says it is diligently upgrading the runways. The agency expects that all of them will meet the standard by 2015, when they are legally required to do so, according to FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown.

“Today, 70 percent of commercial service runways have a runway safety area within 90 percent of the standard,” Brown said. She said 236 runways were improved as of Sept. 22.

Deadly airplane crashes can happen on runways because they’re too short, improperly lit, poorly designed or lack safety equipment. A minor procedural error by a pilot or an air traffic controller can turn tragic if a vehicle or another airplane happens to be in the way.

Federal safety investigators are looking into three runway mishaps this week alone: An Alaska Airlines jet landed on the wrong runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport; two airliners clipped wings while taxiing at Newark Liberty International Airport; and another jet landed on a taxiway at Newark.

The wrong runway may have been used more frequently than the FAA previously thought. The agency searched 5.4 million records over 10 years and found flight crews said they were confused about runways 117 times, according to FAA spokeswoman Brown.

As a result of the data search, Brown said, the FAA is exploring ways to prevent pilot confusion.

Within the past year, two fatal commercial airline crashes involved runways.

In August, 49 people were killed when a Comair regional jet took off on the wrong runway at Lexington Blue Grass Airport in Kentucky.

In December, a 6-year-old boy in a car was killed when a Southwest Airlines 737 overran a runway at Chicago’s Midway Airport and plowed into the street.

Part of the problem is that some airports were built in congested urban areas and have no room to lengthen their runways.

One solution is to install the EMAS.

Last month, a private jet carrying Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez overran a runway at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, Calif., and was brought to a halt by an EMAS bed.

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