FAA runway system faulted

With airplane moving violations on the nation's runways rising, the Federal Aviation Administration's delayed and over-budget radar-based warning system faced sharp criticism at a congressional hearing this week.

At a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Aviation Subcommittee June 26, members of Congress and several panelists faulted the FAA's Airport Movement Area Safety System (AMASS) for not providing controllers enough warning time to avoid accidents, costing millions of dollars more than expected and being difficult to commission at its 34 designated airports.

"I think people were looking to this system as a cure-all, and it won't [be]," Department of Transportation IG Kenneth Meade said. "I think people will be mistaken if they think this is the answer."

Meade said that although FAA commissioned AMASS for the first time this month in San Francisco and Detroit, it's still unclear how well the system will work and whether its schedule for other airports can be met. AMASS also sometimes issues false alerts to air traffic controllers, creating a safety problem when none existed before, he said.

"A false alert can be just as bad as no alert at all," Meade said.

Carol Carmody, acting chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said AMASS would not have given controllers enough time to prevent many close calls or accidents NTSB is investigating.

Indeed, a simulation of a 1999 O'Hare International Airport runway incursion — an occurrence where the spacing between planes is compromised or potentially compromised — showed AMASS would not have provided controllers enough of a warning to prevent the incident. This caused the FAA to downgrade AMASS from an incursion-prevention system to a collision-prevention system, she said.

The FAA was "overly optimistic" in terms of how well AMASS could predict runway incursions, said Stephen Zaidman, FAA associate administrator for research and acquisitions. Regarding false alerts, he said AMASS, as an enhancement to Airport Surface Detection Equipment-3 radar, suffers from a common radar defect of displaying "phantom targets" based on beams reflected off of buildings and other objects.

Some subcommittee members suggested that lower-tech solutions, such as a traffic-light type of system or stop bars, might be more effective. Meade also stressed the need for pilots to have moving map displays in their cockpits, rather than relying solely on controllers' spoken commands.

FAA officials said that despite its troubles, AMASS will help increase safety when it is operational at all 34 airports, now expected by the end of 2002.

"AMASS, though not perfect, is what we have now," said William Davis, director of the FAA's Runway Safety Program. "It's better than not having [it]."

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